Recently I worked with a group of graduate students who volunteered to be science mentors for students in New York City.  They were being trained in a small set of hands-on labs designed to introduce genetics in an engaging, informal environment.  At some point during the training, we touched upon genetic mutations and variation.  I mentioned that it was a perfect segway into discussion of natural selection and evolution.  One participant raised her hand and asked, “Are we allowed to teach that?”  My initial response was surprise.  I said, “Of course!”  It is unfortunate though, that as science educators we should even have to consider that teaching evolution might be wrong.

I happen to work at an institution where evolution is revered as the underlying theme that explains life and all of its processes.  For a biology teacher it’s a comfortable place to be.  I suppose I am spoiled. When I travel to schools, I am on occasion told by teachers how happy they are that I am presenting evolution for them.  It is a required part of the New York State science curriculum, but some of the teachers who are supposed to teach it, don’t want to.   It makes me wonder.  Are they uncomfortable with the science?  Are they afraid of parents or students lashing out at them?  Does the scientific theory of evolution somehow conflict with their religious beliefs?   I don’t know the answer.  I’m sure it’s a combination of several factors. 

My gut feeling is that most teacher reticence is due to lack of understanding.   I would feel very uncomfortable if asked to teach a topic I didn’t fully understand, and unfortunately this is what’s happening.   I think we need better teacher training, especially for elementary teachers who receive very little training in science.  Everyone who receives a degree in general education or in science education should have to complete a course in basic genetics and/or evolution.   This would significantly reduce the negativity associated with teaching evolution, and could help produce much happier teachers!