Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Another View from Kansas

The address of Chancellor Robert Hemenway to the 1999 University of Kansas Opening Fall Convocation included these remarks:

The third theme of our Strategic Plan, "Building Premier Learning Communities," seems particularly important given the recent actions of the Kansas State Board of Education. The Board's actions raise for us the question of what constitutes an excellent curriculum for the study of science.

In case you have been stranded on a Pacific Island without contact with the outer world this summer, let me briefly summarize what the Kansas Board of Education has done.

The Board voted 6-4 not to include evolution, as it has been commonly defined, in science standards recommended to Kansas Public Schools. The Board also removed from the proposed set of science standards references to radioactive aging of rocks, continental drift, and the "big bang theory" of the origin of the universe, apparently because some people have religious beliefs which hold that the universe is only about 10 000 years old, rather than the billions of years which seem to be confirmed by the geological evidence.

The Board's action grew out of an earlier attempt by three board members to re-write the set of science standards requested by the Board from a group of 27 board appointed science teachers and science professionals. This rewritten version became an alternative document which included numerous explicit references to "creationism" and "intelligent design" and also made the claim that since both evolution and gravity were only scientific theories, neither should be taught as fact.

This alternative document was eventually abandoned however, [and] [t]he science standards which were finally adopted by the 6-4 vote, made references to evolution in terms of "micro evolution - minor genetic changes observed in a population over time - but eliminated references to evolution as scientists normally understand and define it, and certainly as the accumulated empirical evidence of the past 2 centuries would seem to support it.

...We live in an exceedingly complex world shaped in many ways by scientific knowledge. As citizens we have to form opinions about scientific issues. If we don't, we fail in our responsibility to be contributing members to the democratic discourse that ultimately determines the nature and quality of our society. Whether it is the environment, medical care, or highways, science affects our life. ...Being able to understand these debates is becoming as important to you as being able to read. You must become scientifically literate."

... Scientific literacy as I define it here means quite simply, a sufficient understanding of science to understand and contribute meaningfully to debate on public issues. Scientific literacy is not "doing science." Only highly educated professionals "do science." A scientifically literate person "uses" a knowledge of science to understand the ways that scientific discoveries will affect one's life and change one's society. For example, science literacy is not the ability to sequence DNA, but an ability to understand and comprehend the ways in which the mapping of DNA in the human genome project will affect the practice of medicine, and consequently, one's health care.

I suspect that there are many, both within the state, and nationally, who will be willing to help us if we move ahead. They know that what has happened in Kansas could happen in other states. Of one thing I am certain, there is a need for scientific literacy everywhere in the country, not just in Kansas. If those who were shocked by the Board of Education's decision really care about young people learning science ... or the people of Kansas, they should be the first to enlist in our cause.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.