Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Great news on the 'evolution education' front: Explore Evolution

Nonono, not the new, idiotically named textbook from the ID Creationists (IDC are confused by the Google Machine, too. one more similarity to Deniers.).
I mean the 'Explore Evolution' exhibits in natural history museums all over the Midwest. Amidst the depressing statistics on how many schools teach evolution (including human evolution) and how many adults accept and understand basic concepts of evolution, a hopeful paper just came out about the potential effects of 'Explore Evolution' and museums in general in the June issue of 'EVOLUTION'.

Museums Teach Evolution

Natural history museums recognize that they might be one of the few places where children (and sadly, adults) are exposed to evolution. They know they are fighting an uphill battle. So museums know they have to get the biggest bang for their buck. How to do that? Happily for my ego, the way Ive always tried to educate my friends and the public on evolution:

The goals were to show evolutionary research as an endeavor engaged in by real people, to show real data and the experimental process, to engage audiences to learn to think like evolutionary scientists, and to show a range of evolution research projects in a diversity of organisms.
Through interactive and multimedia exhibits, the new permanent exhibit galleries give visitors opportunities to experience aspects of the research conducted by each of the scientist teams. Built around exploration, identification with strong role models, critical thinking, and skill development, the Explore Evolution exhibits create a learner-centered communication, learning, and assessment environment that provides support for evolution learning experiences in school.
Show everyone how we use evolution in our research every day. Show how our research applies to the real world/real people. Show everyone our data in a non-jargony manner so they can take their new knowledge home.

'Explore Evolution' does this by packing a LOT of data and a LOT of real-world examples into one exhibit-- HIV evolution, diatom speciation, ant and fungus co-evolution, fly sexual selection, Darwins finches, comparing human and chimpanzee genomes, whales journey to the sea... All connected with a simple break-down of evolution: variation, inheritance, selection, and time. AWESOME! AHHHH!

But the coolness doesnt stop there! The exhibit organizers are studying peoples understanding of evolution before, during, and after they visit the exhibit to optimize the information and layout. Visitors are given questions like:
During one year, scientists measured the beaks of one kind of finch on a remote island. They found that most of these finch beaks were small. In the following year, a drought wiped out almost all the plants that produce small seeds. Only the plants that make large tough seeds remained. A few years later, the scientists returned to the island and measured finch beaks again. This time they found that more of the finches had bigger beaks. How would you explain why more of the finches had bigger beaks?
Answers were coded as:
  • Informed Naturalistic Reasoning (not an expert answer, but theyve still *got it*)
"Well, in that case, I would assume that the birds evolved – well, the birds with the larger beaks were the ones better able to survive, since the larger beaks were more useful in getting the seeds. So that trait is the one that was selected for, and the birds that had the smaller beaks died out over time. . . . They didn't produce as many offspring."

  • Novice Naturalistic Reasoning (a naturalistic answer, but not quite right)
"Well, in order to survive, their body parts had to adjust to certain things, similar to the way giraffes' necks probably grew long as they reached for the plants at the top of the trees, so the beak grew longer in order to deal with the tougher seeds..."

  • Creationist Reasoning
"Um, first of all I have a problem with your eight million years. I believe in creation in the biblical account, so that pretty well defines how I believe things. God created them and due to the great flood, that is how the diversity came and that would be my explanation …"

While their results so far arent great, theyre encouraging. You can check out a preliminary graph of some data theyve collected so far here: pdf

I dont mind at all that most people gave 'novice' responses to HIV, diatoms, co-evolution, and sexual selection. If Ive said it once, Ive said it a million times-- HIV is weird. Everything about it is weird. Thats why I love it. But I dont expect laymen to know the weirder aspects of HIV off the top of their head at a museum. Diatoms are also weird (common, you know you just Wiki-ed 'diatom'), and co-evolution/sexual selection are weird.
As long as you learn what this stuff is at 'Explore Evolution' and accept that there is a naturalistic explanation to HIV etc, Im happy! Museums are for learning! Good for you for venturing a response!

I am very encouraged at the right side of that graph. What are the basic examples of evolution that you get in high school? Finches. Whales. People. So people who are exposed to these topics *get it*. These three got the highest 'Informed Naturalistic Responses".

Of course, 'humans/chimps' is where the Creationists freaked out, and even wishy-washy Creationists declared that they didnt come from no monkey.

Get off of my cloud, Creationists! The sane people are *getting* it! WHOO!

Another chunk of data these folks are collecting that I really find encouraging, is how children react to exposure to evolutionary science at a young age. Little kids, of course, use a lot of metamagical thinking to describe/understand 'evolution'. BUT if you expose kids to science, by the time they are pre/early adolescents, they understand 'counterintuitive' evolutionary concepts. Bad news-- kids in Fundy households and schools still grow up to be Creationists despite exposure to science. *wince*

I cant wait until they get all their data together!!


Davis said...

I found this to be an interesting observation:

"Even more surprising, they did not
spontaneously apply evolutionary explanations to all living things. Different organisms elicited characteristic reasoning patterns."

Does evolution somehow seem more intuitive in some cases than in others (to a lay person)? Or is there a deeper lack of understanding of its universality?

ERV said...

Dustin-- Does evolution somehow seem more intuitive in some cases than in others (to a lay person)? Or is there a deeper lack of understanding of its universality?
I think its both-- I know there isnt a lot of data here, yet.
Theyre trying to apply this "X is more intuitive than Y" to museums so they know to describe X really really well.

"Already, many museum visitors apply evolutionary principles to some organisms, but the majority understand only a few strands of evolutionary theory, and there are many misconceptions. Given the persistence of these cognitive biases, a single visit to an evolutionary exhibit is unlikely to bring about radical conceptual change. By focusing on those concepts that are most susceptible to change, it may well be possible to pry open the chinks in this conceptual armor and bring about subtle shifts in these reasoning patterns."

You can get the paper Im referring to over Blackwell Synergy (or if you cant, I can email it to you)-- Lots of neat bits about teaching evolution in a museum setting, and I cant summarize them all here without just quoting the whole paper :) hehe!

Anonymous said...

This is hopeful news.

I've been blogging on the dismal job some of our museums do at teaching. Here's a post where I compare the London Museum of Natural History to the Creation Museum.


Sadly, the Creation Museum wins.


Chris Harrison said...

I read this paper about a week ago, but decided not to do a post about it, mainly coz I had just wrote about Hillis' top 10 wishlist*. Now I come here and find out you make an awesome post about it. Damn!

As to the name of these exhibits and the new ID textbook, I wonder if the book was deliberately titled the same to create confusion?


VancouverBrit said...

I'd like to start this comment by saying that I'm not trying to offend anyone, I have American relatives and friends and love visiting your fine country!

I have to admit though, I'd been led to believe that American educational institutions of all kinds shied away from the alleged controversy and were weak on their handling of evolution. But I was very pleasantly surprised by the Smithsonian natural history museum when I visited last year. Also I talked to a very nice American lady about the promise of stem cell research on my flight home from San Diego on Monday. I'm always quite cautious when telling people what I do for a living and was very relieved by this woman's positive response!

You guys are so much nicer and more reasonable in person than the international stereotypes would suggest!

Davis said...


You're confusing me with the other math guy. :)

I just downloaded the paper, it'll make good reading on my flight in a dew days. Thanks for posting this.

ERV said...

DAMMIT Davis! I KNEW I was going to do that! I KNEW it! ARG! Sorry :(

Siamangs link hehehe Isnt Blogger great?

Chriss link hehehe!
Isnt that journal awesome? I was doing a search on HIV evolution and I just stumbled upon it!
We divided it up right, though, cause I know everyone at UNL Center for Virology that set up the HIV portion of 'Explore Evolution'. UNL gave me my big break back in the day ;) Thanks for leaving it for me!

Vancouver-- Yeaahh... Dont come to Oklahoma. Even the bio-researchers are more conservative than Im used to, and Im from Missouri/Nebraska. Oklahoma is like a different planet, but eh, us sane folks manage to find each other :)
The Smithsonian exhibit is brand new-- it wasnt there when I visited a couple of years ago. Ah well, another reason to go back!

CAD said...

My former PI is from Nebraska and left pretty much as soon as she could. There's an awesome poster in her lab that says "Ski Nebraska!" above a picture of someone standing on skis in a racing pose in a totally flat corn field.

ERV said...

I loved Nebraska! Lincoln was a great town! Good coffee shops, donut shop 30 seconds from work, GREAT Indian food, lots of stuff to do downtown, Citizens for Science group I miss terribly... :( And I miss all the virologists too-- plant viruses, megaviruses, animal viruses, human viruses, man. Here its like me. And Boss. And the lab next door. *sigh*

And it was a very international, very liberal environment. There is only one person I worked with that I would describe as somewhat 'conservative', but she wasnt *bad*.

There are *bad* people here, even in academia.