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Classroom evolution.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

The controversial concept of "intelligent design" continues to have its day in court, thanks to eight families in Pennsylvania who've sued to have it removed from their local school district's biology curriculum.

But while often viewed as a recent wrinkle in the evolution vs. creation debate, intelligent design is no newcomer notion - just ask the folks in Reedsport who lobbied to have it added to the local high school science curriculum back in 1995.

That's the same year the Springfield School Board balked at approving four new science textbooks because they failed to treat creationism as a legitimate scientific theory alongside evolution.

The Reedsport School Board ultimately heeded a legal opinion that teaching intelligent design in a public school science class would be unconstitutional, and the Springfield board voted 3-2 to adopt the science textbooks.

But 10 years later, the issue hasn't gone away - nationally or locally. In addition to the court dispute in Dover, Penn., the debate rages in Kansas, where the state school board has adopted preliminary science standards that require a disclaimer about the merits of evolution, and other communities across the country.

In Oregon, the issue has surfaced in school board races in Bend, Salem, Portland and elsewhere, and could come into play when the state Department of Education's scientific standards come up for review in 2008, spokesman Gene Evans says.

A flurry of inquiries prompted the Education Department in August to send letters to all 198 school districts, spelling out the science curriculum standards that prohibit teaching intelligent design in science classes. The questions spiked, Evans says, after President Bush opined that schoolchildren should be exposed to "different ideas" on how life evolved.

But interviews with a number of educators at public, charter and private schools suggest that, for the most part, a clear demarcation exists in Lane County and the rest of Oregon: Evolution is taught in the public schools, Bible creationism is taught at some private Christian schools - and few are in the middle advocating intelligent design.

The reason: Scientists view intelligent design - the notion that the world is so complex that it can only be explained by some supernatural entity - as a wolf in sheep's clothing, a way of "dressing up" the religious tenet of creationism.

Many Bible literalists, meanwhile, view intelligent design as "watered-down" creationism - a way of asserting that God created the world without saying "God."

By whatever name - creationism or intelligent design - the concept has wide public support. A Pew Research Center poll, conducted in July, found that a clear majority of Americans, including many who believe in evolution, favor adding creationism to the public school curriculum. One reason why: Nearly four of every 10 believers in evolution say the process was guided by a supreme being.

More than a third of Americans, meanwhile, believe creationism should be taught in the public schools instead of evolution. But enthusiasm for creationism is not as keen in the West - explaining, perhaps, why the debate is less intense here than elsewhere in the country.

Intelligent design has been repudiated by virtually every mainstream scientific organization, including the National Academy of Sciences, which has declared the theory of evolution to be "the central unifying concept of biology."

Intelligent design is the descendant of an earlier "creation science" movement, which also failed as science because it doesn't meet the criteria of a scientific theory - a way of explaining scientific observations that are falsifiable - and has no strong peer-review evidence in its support, scientists say.

But scientists' near-unanimity about evolution isn't widely known by the general public, according to the recent Pew Research Center survey. While most Americans - 54 percent - think there's general agreement among scientists about evolution, one in three - 33 percent - says no such scientific consensus exists.

Oregon's public schools have sought to nip any controversy in the bud. The Oregon Science Content Standards, adopted by the state education board in April 2001, clearly require the teaching of evolution - and only evolution - in science classrooms. The rationale is that creationism is a religious doctrine and violates the separation of church and state when put forth as science.

Teachers can explore explanations of life on Earth, including religious ones such as creationism, in comparative religion or social studies classes. But few do, says Andrea Morgan, a social sciences specialist with the state Education Department.

Teachers shy away

"There's probably no better place than a social studies class to teach controversial issues such as these," Morgan says. "But it's not being addressed. You don't see the words `creationism' or `intelligent design' or even `evolution' in our social science standards."

Students will sometimes bring up creationism in class, or parents in after-school conferences, but teachers generally don't initiate the topic, says Bob Curtis, science curriculum specialist with the Lane Education Service District.

Ed Mendelssohn, principal at Thurston High School in Springfield, has taught science at Thurston Middle School and also in Cottage Grove. Mendelssohn says he always let students who raised the question of creationism explain their point of view.

Critics of evolution often assert that "it's only a theory, but that provides a wonderful segue of what a theory is in a scientific context," Mendelssohn says. "It's much more than a hunch or best guess. It's the best explanation based on the amount of evidence you can collect."

Oregon's growing number of charter schools, many offering a more traditional educational approach, might seem a logical place to look for the instruction of intelligent design. But because they are publicly funded, charter schools are required to follow the same state standards as public schools.

Many parents with children at HomeSource, a charter school in west Eugene for home-schooled youth, come from a religious background, says Paula Praus-Williamson, the center's executive officer.

Even so, "we kind of bend over backward to make sure we're clearly meeting the (state) guidelines," Praus-Williamson says. "Our philosophy is that the parent is the primary educator, and most parents want to teach (evolution or creationism) at home."

When a resident offered to teach a class at HomeSource on biblical creationism, the school declined, Executive Director Theresa Thompson says.

But at the Willamette Leadership Academy, a military-style charter school in Veneta, teachers try to balance both perspectives in science classes, academy commander Larry Lyford says.

"We do get into discussions about the two theories and officially present them as theories," he says. "Neither theory is proven - otherwise there wouldn't be two."

Different approaches

Even among private schools, the approach varies widely.

At Oak Hill, a non-religious private school in south Eugene, students are taught evolution - but are also free to raise questions about creationism or other religious beliefs in any class, says teacher Linda DeSpain.

At Catholic-affiliated Marist High School, students study the Bible - in theology class, not science class. And even in those theology classes, students are exposed to a "historical critical method" rather than literal interpretation of the Bible.

"We address creation as a faith document that's not trying to give us scientific information but rather convey a belief," says Bill Hendricks, who teaches Old Testament to Marist sophomores. The Bible's authors, he says, aren't so concerned with how the world was created as with the conviction that, however it happened, "the ultimate primal source is a personal God."

Patrick Wagner, in his seventh year teaching biology at Marist, says he doesn't teach creationism or intelligent design because there's no scientific basis to them. "There's no way to test if God is present in the design of molecular life," he says.

But at the same time, Wagner says, he's grateful he can "bring God into the equation" in a way he wouldn't feel able to do in a public school.

"I tell students, `I'm not going to tell you to believe in evolution - you just need to understand it. You have to figure out for yourself how God figures into it.' '

But there are fewer qualifiers for Bill Altmiller, who teaches life and earth science to middle school students at Eugene Christian School, a nondenominational private school with about 255 students in preschool through eighth grade. The school teaches Bible literalism.

In class, Altmiller discusses the "Noah-idic" era, referring to the biblical telling of a worldwide flood and Noah's ark, and spends a good chunk of time exploring "a lot of the problems" with evolution and Darwinism, such as the postulate that humans are descended from apes.

Science is a discipline of observable fact, "and no one was there to evaluate or validate the evolution claims," he says. "In a similar manner, Adam and Eve were the only ones who really got to see the end results."

DEFINITION OF TERMS

Creationism: The religious doctrine that all living things on Earth were created separately, in more or less their present form, by a supernatural creator, as stated in the Bible

Intelligent design: The argument that biological structures are too complex not to have been designed by an unidentified supernatural or extraterrestrial intelligence

Evolution: A scientific theory that holds that all species of plants and animals developed from earlier forms by natural selection

Natural selection: The process by which organisms best adapted to their environment increase in frequency relative to less well-adapted forms over a number of generations; "survival of the fittest"

CAPTION(S):

"Biology for Christian Schools," a textbook used at Eugene's Lifegate Christian School, includes an examination of Noah's Ark and the biblical flood. Story, Page A14 PAGE STREAMER
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Title Annotation:Schools; Oregon public schools teach the scientific theory, but others design their curricula differently
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 30, 2005
Words:1573
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