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Summer Reading for Educators, Science Edition

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. With NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott, he edited Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).

BranchSummers tend to be blessedly slow at the nonprofit where I work, the National Center for Science Education. That’s because NCSE’s primary mission is to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and when the schools are out of session, the school boards are taking a break, and the state legislatures have adjourned, the creationist onslaught on the teaching of evolution slackens—even if it never entirely vanishes. So it’s a good time for me to catch up on my reading.

Of all the education books I read this summer, the one that impressed me the most was Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer’s Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010)—although, to be fair, I wasn’t reading it for the first time. At the center of the book is Berkman and Plutzer’s careful national survey of high school biology teachers, who were asked about what they thought and what they teach about evolution. The results were disquieting: as they summarized in the January 28, 2011, issue of Science, “The data reveal a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology,” with only 28% of teachers deemed effective educators with respect to evolution—and with as many as 13% of teachers explicitly advocating creationism.

It wasn’t all bad news from Berkman and Plutzer, though. In chapter 6 of their book, they analyze the changes in the treatment of evolution in state science education standards, concluding, “... the content of state standards in the year 2000 reflected public opinion. But the nation’s major science organizations were successful in encouraging many states to redraft their standards, so that, by 2007, many more reflected the goals and priorities of the scientific establishment.” Battles over the treatment of evolution in state standards still rage in places like Texas and Florida, but overall the defenders of evolution are winning. And a set of model national standards, now under development with the guidance of the National Research Council, properly emphasizes evolution as one of the “disciplinary core ideas” of the life sciences.

The statistical rigor and scholarly detail of Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms was bracing, certainly, but it wasn’t exactly a book that I wanted to take to the beach or share with my ten-year-old son. That honor was clearly reserved for Jay Hosler’s Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth (Hill and Wang, 2011), illustrated by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon. A charming graphic introduction to evolution, the conceit of the book is that it takes place not on the earth, but on the planet Glargal, inhabited by intelligent aliens that vaguely resemble sea cucumbers. The squinches, as they call themselves, are facing a genetic crisis, and as part of their efforts to combat it, a squinch scientist, Bloort 183, has been researching life on earth and is now explaining evolution to the Glargalian monarch and his heir.

Both Hosler and the Cannons are old hands at explaining biological ideas in comics. Hosler is responsible for a string of comics on evolutionary themes published by Active Synapse, Clan Apis, The Sandwalk Adventures, and Optical Allusions—probably the best National Science Foundation-funded comic around! The Cannons previously illustrated Mark Schultz’s The Stuff of Life (Hill and Wang, 2009), which introduced the squinches while explaining the basics of genetics. The result of their collaboration, though, is something special: Hosler’s gift for narrative and the clever and appealing illustrations of the Cannons make learning about evolution the most fun you can have without donning a cape to fight crime. Don’t take my word for it, though: there’s a sample chapter, in which Bloort 183 explains extinction, posted on the NCSE website.

I’m looking forward to having time to read a number of forthcoming books on the teaching of evolution, including Jeffrey P. Moran’s American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science (Oxford University Press, 2012), which promises to analyze the historical roles played by race, gender, and regionalism in the controversies over the teaching of evolution. Is it any wonder that sometimes I wish that the summer could last the whole year long?