GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, USA - 2019

Paper No. 178-9
Presentation Time: 10:25 AM


FRIEND, Dana S., Paleontological Research Institution, 1259 Trumanburg Road, Ithaca, NY 14850

Almost 15 years ago, the president of Cornell University Hunter Rawlings III made evolution a central issue in his “State of the University” address, a time usually reserved for reporting on the previous year. Rawlings’ goal––“engaging issues like evolution and intelligent design both internally, in the classroom, and also externally by making our voices heard in the spheres of public policy and politics”––makes the assumption that Cornell prepares undergraduates to participate in informed and respectful discourse on evolution.

Cornell has since abandoned the traditional Introductory Biology course model and replaced it with Evolution. Such a change reflects the message that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” But given the widespread hesitation of many instructors to even broach the topic of intelligent design, are we truly preparing students to defend either evolution or evolution education? Likewise, does the avoidance of the topic create a more or less welcoming atmosphere for religious students? Wide ranging surveys were given to biology and geology majors as well as students in an “Evolution for non-majors” course to gather information such as students’ religious upbringing, high school type and size, and their opinions on evolution and its place in public education. Over three-quarters of those surveyed said that they understood evolution “well” or “very well,” and most students also reported that while they feel prepared to defend evolution from family, friends, or strangers who are skeptical of the theory, it is best to avoid the topic altogether. This suggests students are confident in their understanding about evolution, their certainty is perhaps unfounded. Fewer students said they understood the ongoing debate between evolution and intelligent design “very well,” indicating that when their ideas about evolution are challenged, students lose confidence. Through an in-depth look at the survey results, I suggest a few specific ways in which faculty can model respectful, inclusive discourse without alienating their religious students.