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Evolution for Everyone

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Published on Sep 9, 2009

The fight to keep evolution in the public school curriculum is well known, but a quieter fight is being waged on college campuses, where evolution is taught primarily as a biological topic and avoided by the social sciences and humanities. That is now changing, thanks to a course and multicourse curriculum developed at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and which is now spreading to other campuses in the form of a consortium funded by the National Science Foundation.
The course, titled Evolution for Everyone, is described in the forthcoming issue of the journal Evolution, Education, and Outreach. Taught by Binghamton University evolutionary biologists Daniel O'Brien and David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone is the cornerstone of a multicourse curriculum - the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program.
Evolution for Everyone is available to students from all majors and teaches evolution as something that applies to all human-related subjects in addition to the biological world. It begins with the basic principles of evolution, similar to a standard evolution course, but then branches out to consider unorthodox topics such as dating, personality, economics, politics and religion in addition to more standard biological topics. Experiments are conducted in class, with the students acting first as subjects and then analyzing the results, so that they learn about scientific inquiry in addition to evolution per se. Finally, the students get to show off their new skills by choosing a topic of their own to study from an evolutionary perspective, culminating in a poster session emulating a scientific conference and open to the campus community. Every topic considered during the course reinforces a style of thinking in which the same basic principles are applied to a diversity of subjects.
To assess learning for each individual student, a survey, which was developed by Patricia Hawley at the University of Kansas, was administered at the beginning and end of the semester. Results show that students learn the material and appreciate its relevance better than most college evolution courses, regardless of their previous science training, their political beliefs or even their religious beliefs.
According to O'Brien, It is rare for an evolution-oriented course at the University level to have this sort of effect. Material can easily be memorized, but it is uncommon for students to incorporate it into their general attitudes, not to mention their daily lives.
The multicourse program, or EvoS, enables students to explore their evolutionary interests throughout their academic career. Binghamton's EvoS program was initiated in 2003, a second program was initiated at the State University of New York's New Paltz campus in 2007, and both programs received National Science Foundation funding in 2008 to expand into a nationwide consortium (see http://www.evostudies.org/). Groups of faculty from over 40 institutions have joined the consortium during its first year alone.
According to Wilson, The key to teaching evolution is to make it unthreatening, explanatory and useful for the subjects that the students care about the most. This is how evolution will eventually be taught on all campuses. The Evolution for Everyone course and the EvoS Consortium will make it happen sooner rather than later.

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