Patti Howell had thought long and hard about this moment in her 10th-grade biology class. She had spent months subtly preparing her students for it, had agonized and worried about it, had even attended a training session to get ready for it.

Now, on a sun-dappled April morning, Howell stood before 26 15-year-olds at the Baconton Community Charter School in southwestern Georgia, scanning the slip of paper she had just plucked off a heavy wood table.

“All right, let’s see what we got here,” said Howell, a 40-something teacher, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a loose floral print shirt.

“Biologists ‘believe’ in evolution. How many of you think that is fact?”

Hands shot up around the classroom, along with a chorus of “fact,” spoken in adolescent murmurs.

“Majority are saying fact,” Howell said.

She nodded sagely—she had set up perfectly the exercise she learned in her training session. Now it was time for the payoff.

“Science is not a belief system,” she said. “Science is a collection of evidence, reporting and communicating what you get from that evidence. You do not ‘believe’ in evolution; you do not ‘believe’ in science.”

Howell scanned her students’ faces.

“Religion is our belief system,” she continued. “I believe in God, I have faith in God, I do not need for God to burn a bush in front of me. But for science we need evidence.”

It’s day one of the evolution unit in Howell’s class. And for a science teacher, the job doesn’t get much more challenging than this. Baconton, population 850, is a devout farming community known for growing easy-to-crack pecans. A road sign at the entrance to town welcomes visitors to “the paper shell pecan capital of the world.” Almost all Howell’s students attend local Baptist congregations that follow a “strict literalist” interpretation of the Bible. Their pastors teach that God created Earth in six 24-hour days, including Adam and Eve, and that humans do not share a common ancestor with lower life-forms. Most of Howell’s colleagues have strong beliefs on the topic, too. When the Spanish teacher in the classroom across the hall learned that evolution was on today’s agenda, he asked Howell for the names of her 50 students. He wanted to pray for their souls.

Howell thinks what she is doing right now, as she begins the evolution unit, is key to everything that will follow. Somehow she must convince her students that they can consider what she has to say about evolution with an open mind and still retain the religious beliefs that lie at the center of their cultural identity—that, contrary to what many of their pastors tell them every Sunday, she is not attempting to force them to choose between God and science.

It’s a tough sell. Which is why, for months, Howell has refused to discuss the subject with her students. Many had been asking her from the first day of school: Do you believe in evolution? Do you think we came from monkeys?

Now Howell looks out at the faces of her students and finally answers.

“I know that y’all think I’m a heathen,” she says. “I understand that, but I am Christian. Do I believe in evolution? No, that’s not a belief system. But I accept the theory of evolution.”

Avoiding the Subject

Straight talk about evolution in classrooms is less common than one might think. According to the most comprehensive study of public school biology teachers, just 28 percent implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council, which call for them to “unabashedly introduce evidence that evolution has occurred and craft lesson plans so that evolution is a theme that unifies disparate topics in biology,” according to a 2011 Science article by Pennsylvania State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer.

Conversely, 13 percent of teachers (found in virtually every state in the Union and the District of Columbia) reported explicitly advocating creationism or intelligent design by spending at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light. Another 5 percent said they endorsed creationism in passing while answering student questions.

The majority—60 percent of teachers—either attempted to avoid the topic of evolution altogether, quickly blew past it, allowing students to debate evolution, or “watered down” their lessons, Plutzer says. Many said they feared the reaction of students, parents and religious members of their community. And although only 2 percent of teachers reported avoiding the topic entirely, 17 percent, or roughly one in six teachers, avoided discussing human evolution. Many others simply raced through it.

To confront these challenges, several organizations have launched new kinds of training sessions that are aimed at better preparing teachers for wh at they will face in the classroom. Moreover, a growing number of researchers have begun to examine the causes of these teaching failures and new ways to overcome them.

Among many educators, a new idea has begun to take root: perhaps it is time to rethink the way evolution teachers grapple with religion (or choose not to grapple with it) in the classroom. “There has been this war between creationism and what I think of as a cold teaching of evolution. Basically, ‘Check your religious beliefs at the door, we don’t talk about that in here, this is science. All you narrow-minded fundamentalist Christians, shut up and listen to us talk,’” says Lee Meadows, an associate professor of science education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Meadows also serves on the social impact committee of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Initiative, a group helping to find ways to better promote acceptance of evolution education. “There’s a growing number of us,” he adds, “who are saying there’s got to be a way to teach the science without throwing kids who come from religious backgrounds into turmoil.”

A Legacy of Acrimony

For decades the most high-stakes, high-profile battles over evolution education were fought in the courts and state legislatures. The debate centered on, among other things, whether the subject itself could be banned or whether lawmakers could require that equal time be given to the biblical account of creation or the idea of “intelligent design.” Now, with those questions largely resolved—courts have overwhelmingly sided with those pushing to keep evolution in the classroom and creationism out of it—the battle lines have moved into the schools themselves.

The most promising efforts nowadays are focused on laws advocating “academic freedom,” which leave it up to individual teachers to say what they want about controversial science topics, including evolution, says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which monitors antiscience legislation.

Some 70-odd “academic freedom bills” have been introduced in state legislatures around the country since the first one appeared in Alabama in 2004, and three have passed: in Mississippi in 2006, in Louisiana in 2008 and in Tennessee in 2012.

Credit: Grard DuBois

“If you can’t ban the teaching of evolution, and you can’t balance it with creationism in some form or other, what do you do?” Branch asks. “You belittle it, you say evolution is just a theory or you say it’s controversial. Creationists have been saying this all along. The difference is that now they don’t have anything better.”

Today, many are now realizing, the far larger obstacle for the vast majority of ordinary science teachers is the legacy of acrimony left over from the decades of legal battles. In many communities, evolution education remains so charged with controversy that teachers either water down their lesson plans, devote as little time as possible to the subject or attempt to avoid it altogether.

Meanwhile teachers in deeply religious communities such as Baconton face an additional challenge. Often they lack tools and methods that allow them to teach evolution in a way that does not force those students to take sides—a choice that usually does not go well for the scientists perceived to be at war with their community.

Without such tools, even those teachers who do feel confident with the material often have trouble convincing students to listen to their lesson plans with an open mind—or to listen to them at all.

From the Courtroom to the Classroom

The war over evolution education has had three distinct phases leading up to the current era, according to NCSE’s Branch.

The first wave of antievolution pressure in public schools started in the 1920s, when a number of states attempted to ban the teaching of evolution outright. After conspiring with a local businessman, a young substitute teacher in Tennessee named John T. Scopes deliberately defied the ban, taught evolution, and was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. The intent was always to challenge his arrest in court. His trial, which began in July 1925, led to a spectacular showdown between defense attorney Clarence Darrow and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, was broadcast on radio and transfixed the nation. Scopes was convicted, but the conviction was later overturned on a technicality, allowing proponents of the ban to avoid a ruling on its constitutionality that many had by then determined they were very likely to lose.

The ban was not actually overturned on constitutional grounds until 1968, when a similar Arkansas law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas. After that, antievolution forces moved to a second approach: advocating the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

In the 1975 Tennessee case Daniel v. Waters, courts struck down an “equal time” law passed by the state legislature, requiring teachers to teach biblical creation whenever they taught evolution. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Branch notes, some 30 state legislatures considered bills advocating the teaching of “creation science,” arguing that creation accounts of genesis, including the worldwide flood, were scientifically supportable.

A bill in Arkansas actually passed, leading to its defeat in the 1982 case McLean v. Arkansas, which featured evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and a whole host of celebrity scientists. Soon after, Louisiana passed a broader bill, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1987.

After those defeats, many moved on to advocating the teaching of intelligent design, which argues that “something, somehow, intervened in the history of life,” according to Branch. That approach was struck down in 2005 by a federal district judge, after parents in Dover, Pa., challenged a policy put in place by a local school board that had been taken over by creationists (who were subsequently voted out).

In the minds of many, that put a stop to any credible legislative effort to bring creationism back to the classroom. Yet the issue hasn’t gone away. No one knows that better than teachers on the front lines such as Patti Howell.

On the first day of the evolution unit, Howell set to work subtly chipping away at her students’ resistance to the theory. As soon as her backpack-toting teenagers shuffled past her that morning, she handed each one a brief article on the evolutionary vulnerability of asexually reproducing toenail fungus. Then she instructed them to partner up and rotate through a series of stations set up around the room.

As she had done with her two other biology classes, at each station she had placed a slip of paper with a single statement on it: “Humans evolved from monkeys,” read one. “Only Atheists accept the theory of evolution,” read another. After reading each slip, the students placed beads on one of two sticks, each anchored by a small wood square labeled either “fact” or “fiction.” Howell addressed the “misconceptions” one by one. Then she played brief video clips about dog fleas that have developed resistance to store-bought anti-itch creams and bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics.

Her goals on this first day were twofold: to provide examples of evolution that students might observe every day and to address common misconceptions.

Howell learned these two approaches at a recent teacher-training session sponsored by the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), an organization launched in 2015 by Miami-Dade middle school teacher Bertha Vazquez, with funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. During the past three years TIES has held 92 workshops in more than 30 states and trained upward of 1,500 teachers. Countless others have accessed the organization’s Webinars remotely.

The idea, Vazquez says, is to take aim at perhaps the biggest obstacle to evolution education: the fact that many teachers feel unprepared to teach it. “If I mess up when I’m teaching weather to my students—say I don’t know the difference between an occluded front and a stationary front—no one is calling the office and nobody’s really going to question me,” Vazquez explains. “If I mess up between natural selection and genetic drift or theory versus fact, then you’re going to have parents on you full of misconceptions. If you don’t feel confident teaching this, you’re just not going to teach it.”

In 2013 Vazquez participated in a discussion with Richard Dawkins and about a dozen science professors at the University of Miami about exactly this issue. They concluded the problem is that teachers are not comfortable with the material. Therefore, after the event, she set up a professional development course in evolution for some of her friends in area middle schools. When Vazquez met Dawkins a year later at another event and told him what she had done, Dawkins offered to come talk to her teachers. And a few months later Dawkins asked if Vazquez might be willing to take her project national. (Dawkins serves on Scientific American’s board of advisers.)

In 2016 the program added Webinars, available to teachers who cannot make it to the workshops in person. These resources supplement a growing body of teaching materials already on the Web—in 2004, for instance, the National Center for Science Education, in collaboration with the University of California Museum of Paleontology, developed a Web site entitled Understanding Evolution that offers science content, teaching resources and teaching strategies. “We’re trying to get teachers to a point where they have confidence teaching it and can present it for what it is,” Vazquez says, “a beautiful awe-inspiring way of seeing the world, you know, that’s current and relevant.”

Although Vazquez, who teaches in a Miami-Dade school, does not face nearly the level of resistance Howell is confronting, she estimates every year she has a handful of students for whom evolution is a problem, either Christians, Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses. And when designing her training materials, she built in the approaches she has found to be effective and intuitive in engaging them.

“If you start with misconceptions, and modern, current relevance of evolution and how important it is in terms of agriculture and medicine, it brings their guard down a little bit,” Vazquez says. “I think showing just a common little example, those kids can go home now and say, ‘yeah, she talked about fleas.’ The teacher’s not really going to get in trouble, but the kids are going to get natural selection.”

“When teachers ask us about how to deal with students’ religious questions in TIES workshops, we recommend the teachers say, ‘Since this is a science class, we will not address religion here. We advise you to ask your parents and faith leaders about the religious question,’” Vazquez adds. Howell herself chose to add in a mention of her own religious beliefs to drive home the idea that religion and science coexist.

The approaches that Vazquez and Howell have arrived at through intuition and experience, others are confirming or refining using the scientific method. Indeed, a growing number of researchers are beginning to argue that in addition to tackling misconceptions and showing evolution at work in the world today, it may actually be equally effective to explicitly address the elephant in the science room: religion.

In one influential 2011 study published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, investigators at Southern Nazarene University, Purdue University and Florida State University examined the experiences of 15 biology majors at a Midwestern Christian university who were raised to believe in creationism but were forced to grapple with evolution. In the end, almost all of them came to accept evolution. The researchers wanted to know why. In fact, rather than glossing over religion, they found, their professors had acknowledged the religious beliefs of their students, talked openly about the issues raised and served as role models who could help the students reconcile the science with their beliefs.

In another 2012 study, a researcher at Towson University explored the difference between religious students who were unwilling to learn evolution and those who were able to learn and understand evolution, despite the fact that they did not believe in it. In that study, researchers suggested, among other things, that when teachers failed to mention religion it increased their feelings of alienation and made them less open to learning.

Inspired by this research, Arizona State University researchers Sara Brownell and Elizabeth Barnes set out to find out how often professors actually did approach evolution in the college classroom. Not only did they find that instructors rarely touch on the issue of religion, they found the likely reason. The vast majority of instructors teaching evolution were atheists, whereas the population of students who identify as religious in the class was sometimes as high as 80 percent. “When we asked the professors why, they often cited reasons that were related to their own religious cultural background,” Barnes says. “Mainly that they didn’t have experience talking about these issues, and so it was a little intimidating. They weren’t aware of their students’ religious beliefs and whether their students were struggling with evolution. And they had some negative stereotypes.”

Yet to those who grew up in devoutly religious communities and have gone through the process of learning evolution, it is obvious that ignoring religion won’t work. Amanda Glaze, who is a professor of middle grades and secondary education at Georgia Southern University, was inspired to study evolution education in part by her own experience. After growing up in a creationist family on an Alabama farm, she fell in love with science and eventually came to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. But it was not an easy journey.

“I cried, I was depressed, I was worried that I was going to Hell. I mean, years, years of literal torment back and forth,” she recalls. “And yet we try to come into a classroom in a semester or a year and tell people, ‘Oh, well, you know, your beliefs are wrong,’ or ‘They don’t matter, this is what’s true,’ And people wonder why evolutionary acceptance in this country is abysmal.” What many evolution education advocates do not realize, Glaze says, is that for many, religious beliefs and worldviews are “an identity construct.” “If you’re not a part of that, if you’ve never experienced that, it’s very easy to say well, it doesn’t matter, you’re just being irrational,” she says. “Students will just shut down.”

To reconcile her new knowledge with her identity, Glaze says, required her to find a way to consciously segregate her religious beliefs from her scientific knowledge and let them each exist independently, an approach process some have termed “cognitive apartheid.” “We have science, which is a physical explanation of events occurring in a physical world, then we have religious ways of knowing, philosophical ways of knowing that are not tied to physical evidence,” Glaze says. “The standards and the burdens in those different ways of knowing are very, very starkly different, but so often we try to conflate the two.”

“It’s not a matter of supplanting or breaking down someone’s existing worldview. What our actual goal should be is to add a scientific worldview to whatever worldviews people are bringing to the classroom. But to do that, you have to recognize what those worldviews are and the power that they hold with people.”

David Wilcox, a professor emeritus of biology at Eastern University, a Baptist school located in Pennsylvania, spent more than 35 years teaching evolution to students who came in believing in creationism. And for him, “disentangling” the messages received about religion and science was essential. “What’s happened is that evolution is taught in an awful lot of churches not as a matter of science but as a part of a worldview packaged with other ideas—including the idea that one does not believe in God and a worldview in which morality will disappear and in which civilization is not going to survive,” he says. “Many of my students come in having been taught that if you believe in evolution, you have to believe all those other things are true, too. But that’s not the case.”

Wilcox was consistently successful with his students because the first thing he did was attempt to break apart these disparate ideas and convince his students that it is possible to deal with science and still have faith. He also emphasized that there are theologians who have interpretations of the Bible different from those of strict literalists (St. Augustine, for instance)—that, in fact, the theological interpretations that God created Earth in six “literal” days is not at all universal. At the very least, he shows them there is “another door” they can return to later that leads to acceptance of evolution that does not come with atheism.

Finding Religion

Perhaps the most promising and potentially impactful resource to address religion and evolution in the classroom is being developed by Briana Pobiner, a prehistoric archaeologist and museum educator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and her colleagues in close consultation with educational researchers and faith leaders who meet several times a year through the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative’s social impact committee. Recently they unveiled a 75-page Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource guide for teachers to use for discussing human evolution and for actively testing their techniques in the classroom.

“Ignoring the issue of religion doesn’t work,” Pobiner says. “But there is a way to engage students’ faith perspective and help them not shut down completely. Increasingly we are finding that when you don’t dismiss students’ faith perspective, you get a much better outcome for helping them engage with the content of evolution.”

Among other things, the document includes several classroom exercises that teachers can introduce either at the start of evolutionary instruction or “at the first signs of unexpected negativity”—“not to change personal or cultural religious beliefs or to resolve any conflicts between science and religion your students may feel, but to help your student understand the nature of science and that the theory of evolution is a scientific tool useful in addressing biological questions.”

In the first exercise, students are given a homework assignment that asks them to summarize the theory of evolution, to summarize alternative explanations for the variety of life-forms that are important to people they know and to list reasons why some people might be concerned about the study of evolution. In class, the students then break up into groups to discuss their answers.

Over the course of the 2012–2013 school year, Pobiner and her colleagues field-tested the CRS materials with AP biology students in 10 schools in eight states. They used assessments of students’ understanding of evolution before and after it was taught to test their effectiveness. In results published earlier this year in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, Pobiner and her colleagues found that students who had done the CRS exercise had a better understanding and acceptance of the theory of evolution.

The group is now testing this approach in a more challenging environment: 9th-grade biology classes across Alabama, the only state in the union where biology textbooks bear a sticker warning that evolution is “just a theory” and should not be taken as fact. (Alabama lawmakers also passed a resolution last year affirming teachers’ rights to include creationism in their lesson plans.)

Birmingham’s Meadows says the findings will be presented at the Alabama teachers association in November. “Alabama teachers are wanting permission to teach evolution, and they want to know they can do it without personal turmoil and student turmoil, and that’s what I think we’re going to show,” Meadows notes. “It’s going to be huge.” No studies have yet been done on the TIES approach.

Chipping Away at Resistance

Every Sunday, Patti Howell sits in a pew of her church in the town of Americus and listens to her preacher preach: Those scientists are going to try and tell you this. Those scientists are going to try and tell you that.

She never broaches the topic of evolution with her friends, and on the few times she and her husband have discussed the matter, they have argued.

“In church, I just keep my mouth shut. I would never open my mouth. I don’t discuss it with my friends and family,” she says. “I just sit there and listen to it.”

Howell doesn’t have that option in her class—she has a job to do. And she knows the hardest part lies ahead.

Accepting the biological resistance of bacteria is one thing. She expects many of her students will even be interested in the adaptations Darwin discovered in the beak shapes of finches separated from their ancestors by geography. The problems, she expects, will begin when she gets to the similarities between humans and other species—commonalities in DNA, vestigial structures such as the tailbone and other evidence that humans share common ancestors with other species. This part of evolution, she knows, is hard to reconcile with the biblical accounts of creation, Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden. “They’re going to have a hard time with that,” she says.

Howell has had enough experience teaching evolution in other communities for 17 years to know the signs. The students will cross their arms; they will stare at the floor. The most defiant among them may even kick the chairs on the way out. Although she believes the tools she has learned through the TIES program will improve her chances of reaching some students, she knows she won’t reach them all.

Howell isn’t sure what kind of class she will have in coming years. She is hungry for more tools to help her navigate the cultural minefield in her classroom. It’s a lonely battle but one she is willing to fight. “I’ve got these people’s kids, and that’s the most important thing in the whole world to anybody,” she says. “I don’t want to tell them something wrong or damage them. It’s a huge responsibility.”