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This article is from the In-Depth Report New Challenges for Evolution Education

The Education of Jennifer Miller: An Update from the Frontline in the Fight against the Anti-Evolution Agenda

Darwin may have won in Kitzmiller v. Dover, but five years later has evolution education evolved? A biology teacher who testified in the Dover trial talks about what she faces in the classroom every day, and why teachers need to be prepared



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As the 2005 school year got underway, a new requirement in a Pennsylvania public school district mandated that all 9th-grade biology students listen to a statement questioning the validity of evolutionary theory and promoting intelligent design. Eleven parents of students in the Dover Area School District sued the local school board in protest. Four months later a Republican judge in a Pennsylvania federal court ruled in favor of the parents, issuing an eloquent defense of evolutionary theory—and a scathing rebuke to those who support intelligent design (ID) as a scientific alternative.

Judge John E. Jones III wrote in the 139-page decision for Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, named for one of the parents who brought the suit, that ID was not only unscientific but was also a front used by those on the school board with a religiously motivated, pro-creationist agenda.

"ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny, which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class," Jones wrote. "This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the ID movement is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID."

Kitzmiller v. Dover was neither the first nor would it be the last time that challenges to evolution education would have their day in a U.S. court. In the five years since the decision in Pennsylvania several states have seen their own legal clashes over the issue, with each new battle spawning fresh sets of anti-evolution buzzwords as part of efforts to sidestep previous court rulings.

Jennifer Miller was one of the Dover biology teachers who refused to read the contentious ID statement in her class and testified in support of the parents during the 2005 hearings. Miller still works in the area's school district, teaching honors biology to ninth graders and anatomy and physiology to 10th through 12th graders at Dover Area Senior High School. For the past four years she has also chaired the school's science department. Scientific American spoke with Miller about the changes she has seen since the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision was handed down five years ago.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]


How has teaching evolution in your classroom changed in the five years since Kitzmiller v. Dover?
Since Kitzmiller v. Dover I've definitely changed how I teach. The biggest thing is probably that evolution used to be the last thing we got to in the semester. Sometimes we maybe had one week or two weeks to cover it. Now I put evolution first, and I refer back to it to show how important it is to all topics of biology.

The other thing that I really think has changed is how I cover evolution. I'm no longer afraid to cover it in depth and to have in-depth conversations about evolution. I make sure I hit [the concept of] what is science and what is not, and how a scientific theory is very different from a "theory" that we use in everyday conversation.

A lot of teachers are wary of teaching evolution because of the controversy, and I was in that group—I didn't know if I could cover it, what I could say or couldn't say. Now I do cover intelligent design, why it is not science, and why it should not be taught in a science classroom.

Are your current students aware of (or do they care about) the controversy and court battles that erupted over teaching evolution? Do you address the controversy in class?
I don't know how much they're aware. I do address it. I show them segments of the [2007] NOVA documentary [about it]. I make sure that I explain what happened. I make sure that I reiterate that I'm not trying to go against their religious beliefs [but] that religion should not be part of the science curriculum. I try to explain why the controversy is out there and try to explain why the science is taught in my classroom.

The students don't really ask pointed questions. I've never in my years of teaching—and that's 18 years—had a student come to me and say that they were hurt by something I taught in class. We have some good discussions. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what evolution is. But once they get [those] out of their heads, it's pretty common sense to see how evolution occurred, and they don't have a problem with it.

Instead of pushing for ID as a scientific alternative to evolution, as they did in the past, creationists are now flying the banner of "academic freedom" and presentation of evolutionary theory's "strengths and weaknesses". Have you seen this trend in your school district?
I haven't heard much about evolution since 2005, at least in my district. I try to follow what's out there so I know there's been this push. I think if you explain to the kids, there is no "controversy" in the science—and I'm teaching science—it doesn't have to be a controversy. The saddest thing is when they make you pick one way or the other: If you believe in evolution then you can't be religious. There are a lot of scientists who are religious—they're able to marry both of those things.

What do you think of the recent survey published in Science that showed that only 28 percent of biology teachers taught evolution effectively, 13 percent explicitly advocated for creationism, and the rest endorsed neither?
It's slightly surprising. But probably that large percentage of undecided are those who are afraid to decide one way or the other. It all has to do with their not being sure one way or the other. It's troubling to read that. It does concern me.

What are some common mistakes that teachers make in teaching evolution?
I think probably one mistake is just being afraid to teach it, because they're not sure coming in what they can teach—what they can say, what they can't say. There needs to be a lot more education about how to teach to evolution. If they gloss over it, simply being afraid to teach it, that shows the kids that it's not important.

And a pet peeve of mine is that, when I ask students, "What do you think of when you hear the word evolution?" they say, "Man from monkey." The first thing that people think of is that man came from monkeys. That's not what evolution says, that's a big misconception. I'm not sure where they get it—I guess the media, parents, history books where they read about the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. The word evolution is tied to the word monkey.

How do you see teaching evolution in schools changing in the next five years?
I wish that there were a lot more seminars so that people had more background in it. Maybe as we train new biology teachers—make sure that we give them what they really need to know—new teachers can arm themselves with the evidence that's out there. There is tons and tons of evidence for evolution, and it keeps piling up. As a teacher it's hard to stay on top of that.

Teachers must stay on top of this in case there is ever a school board member or community member who tries to institute the "teach the controversy" rhetoric in their classroom. I think that would be helpful. I hope in five years that people aren't so afraid of the topic, but I'm not optimistic.

Because of where I teach, because of the court case, now I'm probably the freest. But knowing school boards—the way they are and with the power they have—this could happen somewhere else. I used to be afraid of what I could or could not say. Who knows if that's not happening in other places?

Speaking about religion and science, I may have a very unconventional background. My father is a minister, so I obviously have a religious upbringing. Several science teachers in our district also happen to be preachers' kids. My father has never had a problem with evolution and taught me that religion and science can live together. These are not mutually exclusive topics. It all depends on the way you're brought up. I hope we can broaden student minds by not being afraid to teach it.

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