Posted on Fri, Jul. 18, 2003

Conflict evolves in science standards debate


The group writing Minnesota's new science standards won't be asked to choose between teaching evolution or creationism, but it will get a recommendation from the state's education commissioner that students be exposed to differing views on the subject.

On Thursday the state unveiled the list of 85 people who will draft new science and social studies standards for kindergarten through 12th grade to replace the Profile of Learning graduation requirements that sparked years of debate before being jettisoned by the Legislature this spring.

Setting new standards may prove equally controversial, especially on the science panel, where evolution is likely to get some extra attention.

Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke will ask the committee to consider an amendment that Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., tried unsuccessfully to add to the federal No Child Left Behind law. It says that when controversial topics -- such as biological evolution -- come up in the classroom, the curriculum should help students understand other views as well.

One of the alternatives Santorum has written about is "intelligent design," which says an organism's complexity is evidence of an otherworldly designer. The amendment passed the Senate and was included in a conference committee's report, but was struck from the final version of the law.

The Education Department received 620 applications from people wanting to serve on the two standards committees. The 85 people chosen include parents, teachers, business people and college educators. About 60 percent are from the Twin Cities area; the others come from nonmetro Minnesota. The group will meet for the first time on July 31.

Teachers who will sit on the science standards committee for high school grades said they wouldn't shy away from a discussion of evolution, noting that their students regularly bring up alternative theories during lessons on evolution.

"We shouldn't teach religion, that's not what we do," said Nicole Harmer, who teaches chemistry and biology in the Brainerd school district. "But there's no problem saying 'There's other ideas out there, explore them, and I'll answer questions if I'm able to,' " she said. "The students I teach are well aware of the controversy," she added. "I encourage students to explore all different theories so they themselves can make a decision."

Randy Moore, a biology teacher at the University of Minnesota, is one of those who applied to be on the panel but wasn't selected. He said the talk of the Santorum amendment and intelligent design will be an issue for science educators.

"Intelligent design is not science, it's a euphemism for creationism," Moore said. "However you cover it up with euphemism, we should teach science in science classrooms. Intelligent design may have a place in philosophy classes, or comparative religion classes. But it's not science, it's creationist nonsense."

The science and social studies standards will be put in place one year behind the new math and reading standards that the Legislature passed this year. Next year the state Legislature is expected to pass new science and social studies standards, leading to a year of transition in the schools and full implementation in the 2005-06 school year.

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