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Creation institute's degree plan questioned

State regulators ask scientists to weigh in.


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, January 10, 2008

The state's commissioner of higher education isn't exactly saying he's opposed to a Bible-oriented group's proposal to offer a master's degree in science education, but some of his recent actions and words could suggest a certain amount of skepticism.

Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes is expected to meet with representatives of the Institute for Creation Research today to discuss, among other things, his suggestion that the group offer a degree in creation studies instead.

In addition, Paredes has asked an informal panel of scientists and science educators to comment on the institute's curriculum, which is flavored with a Christian worldview.

The developments come after two other panels that advise the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and its commissioner recommended approval of the institute's proposal to offer the online degree. One panel stated that, despite its "embedded component" of creationist views, the degree plan "is nevertheless a plausible program."

That drew criticism from advocacy groups that say religion has no place in science classes. Institute officials declined to comment for this story. Patricia Nason, the institute's department chairwoman for science education, said last month that most students wind up teaching at Christian schools but that they learn about evolution and are qualified to teach in public schools.

"We have to go back and make sure we have a very strong review of this proposed program from science educators as well as scientists themselves," Paredes said. "Right now, I'm focusing not on my personal views but making sure both ICR and the scientific and science education community have a full opportunity to express their views on this proposal."

Paredes said he would make a recommendation Jan. 23, when a committee of the coordinating board is scheduled to consider the matter.

The nine-member board, which has final authority as part of its oversight of certain aspects of private and public postsecondary education, is to take up the matter the next day.

Steven Schafersman, president of the Midland-based group Texas Citizens for Science, which has criticized the institute's proposal, said the commissioner's suggestion to recast the degree is "a fine idea."

"It would be churlish to deny ICR the ability to grant a graduate degree when we allow theology schools and Bible colleges to grant graduate degrees," Schafersman said. "What we object to is letting them grant a degree in science education. That is a prevarication."

The proposal by the nonprofit Institute for Creation Research, which is based in Dallas, comes at a time of intense debate about the teaching of evolution in public schools and about whether creationism and intelligent design should be part of the science curriculum.

Chris Comer, who had been head of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, has said she was forced to resign in November after forwarding an e-mail message that her superiors felt was biased against intelligent design, a belief that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause. Creationism ascribes the origin of matter and species to God.

Most scientists and science educators say the curriculum should stick to evolution, the theory that plants and animals developed from earlier forms by the transmission of slight variations through successive generations.

Documents from the Institute for Creation Research on file at the coordinating board show that creationism permeates its curriculum. For example, the documents say students graduating from the program would be able to "design science lesson plans from the creationist worldview" and "refute evolution."

In addition, the institute's bylaws, tenets and other records show that students and faculty members are required to believe that humans did not evolve from animals but were created in fully human form from the start, that God created all physical and living things in the universe in six days, and that anyone who rejects Jesus Christ will be consigned to "everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

In addition to limiting admission to Christian students, the institute prohibits adultery, fornication and homosexual behavior by students on pain of dismissal.

"We're going to take a look at those issues," Paredes said. "We're inviting representatives of ICR to respond to those kinds of questions."

The informal panel of scientists and science educators met earlier this week with coordinating board officials. Members of the panel have been asked not to comment to the media for the time being, said James Kinsey, a chemistry professor at Rice University who participated.

"Once the commissioner has made his recommendation and the process plays out a little more, I'd be happy to talk to you," Kinsey said.

It's likely that panelists favor a curriculum free of creationist views.

One member of the panel, Andrew Ellington, a professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Texas, was among scores of faculty members across the state who signed a letter protesting the Texas Education Agency's treatment of its science director.

Ellington's laboratory specializes in harnessing the principles of evolution to create novel organisms, including bacteria that can "see" light.

A couple of years ago, graduate students in the lab printed T-shirts depicting the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a spaghetti-and-meatballs deity of a fake religion, with the wording, "Real intelligent designers use evolution."

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604

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