WASHINGTON, D.C.--Whether it's a symptom of rotten science literacy or a triumph of conservative religious organizations, evolution is ignored or downplayed in many classrooms these days. Yet, says a panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), "Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching civics and never mentioning the United States Constitution." In a report  released here today, the panel attempts to take the first step toward putting evolution at the core of biology curricula across the country.
The report does not take aim at creationism; that's the topic of a booklet the academy plans to release next summer. Instead, the panel--headed by Stanford biologist Donald Kennedy--takes pains to correct a major misunderstanding that can hamper efforts to teach evolution: Calling it a theory does not mean it's just a hunch. In science, the report explains, a "theory" is an explanation for a set of known facts and observations--in the case of evolution, facts and observations about the "similarities among organisms" and the "extraordinary variety of life."
The report also offers detailed instructions for conducting classroom exercises to teach principles of scientific inquiry in general and evolution in particular. One exercise, for example, challenges students to infer the behaviors of two animals based on a pattern of fossil footprints. Another teaches the role of predators in selective survival by having students hunt for "prey" (different colored dots of paper) on a busy background.
"In my dealings with K-12 teachers, I find that there's a great hunger for the kind of information in this publication," says panel member Eugenie Scott, who runs the National Center for Science Education Inc. in El Cerrito, California. The NRC panelists now hope teachers will heed their message. Says Yale biologist Timothy Goldsmith: "To fail to recognize [evolution] as one of the most important triumphs of human understanding in the history of science is to ignore something just terribly important, exciting, and inspiring."