Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Workshop on Teaching Evolution at the University of Colorado

For the second year, Sarah Wise, Mike Robeson, and Cathy Russell of the University of Colorado, Boulder's Science Discovery Unit have organized a workshop on "Teaching Evolution: Meeting the Challenge" at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The program was aimed at college and public school teachers, including elementary school teachers. The workshop's purpose was to "feature a full day of practical onehour workshops and panel discussions on Teaching Evolution, interspersed with opportunities to interact informally with other participants." During the workshop, resources relating to teaching evolution were displayed in common areas, and many are available for download at the event website,

Approximately 70 people attended the workshop. Of those, about 50% were high-school teachers; 15% were teachers from middle or elementary levels; 25% were university faculty, staff, or students; and 10% were from other scientific organizations such as the Denver Zoo and the Boulder Open Space Department. In a survey given in conjunction with the workshop, 57% of respondents reported that they self-censor their teaching of evolution to some degree and/or receive pressure to avoid teaching evolution from their school or community. This figure was highest among middleschool teachers (86%) and informal educators (62%), while the incidence among high school teachers was lowest (33%).

For those interested in organizing and holding similar events, Matt Young interviewed organizer Sarah Wise about the workshop.

Matt Young: What gave you the initial idea to hold a workshop like this one?

Sarah Wise: I attended a lecture by Patty Limerick, a well-known historian and the director of the University of Colorado's Center of the American West. She and her colleagues hold forums on controversial issues in the West, providing information that help the public gain perspective on those issues. While her group hadn't ever focused on evolution, her example inspired me to take action and provided a model for me to work from.

How did you get funding for the workshop?

The first workshop, which was a half-day, was funded by the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, an NSF-funded University of Colorado GK12 program, and the Colorado Citizens for Science. This year nearly all of the funding came from the University's United Government of Graduate Students (UGGS), which contributed $750 through its regular event-funding program. The EEB department graciously bailed us out when we had a cost overrun, however. We also received generous donations from Qdoba, Izze, and a local bakery, which we acknowledged during the introductory remarks and in the program.

The all-day workshop cost about $1000, not counting donations. This included $160 for breakfast, $530 for lunch, $210 for photocopies, and $100 for other office supplies. We did not charge a registration fee specifically in order to maximize access for teachers.

How did you motivate your department to get involved?

I didn't have to work too hard at that — our department chair had been involved in the first year's event, so he was very supportive and readily agreed to cover expense overruns, let me use the department copier, and obtained the assistance of our office staff. The staff was essential in getting the copying done, lunch set up and cleaned up, and the website designed and uploaded with content. It was easy to use our e-mail listserver to recruit other graduate students to help on the day of the event. A team of graduate students has organized to plan next summer's event, so I can now move into an advisory role.

How did you arrange academic credit and CDE (Colorado Department of Education) credit?

To maintain their certification, teachers have to earn a certain number of professional development credits. Additionally, some teachers can get a salary increase if they earn college credits. We arranged for participating teachers to earn college credit, at a minimal cost, if they requested it. Alternatively, teachers could apply to receive professional development credit from the CDE at no cost.

Arranging for these credit incentives was easy. The Biological Sciences Initiative at the University has an arrangement with the continuing education department at the Colorado School of Mines, so it was a simple matter to arrange college credit through CSM. The CDE required me to submit a form for each participant and to ensure that those participants had actually attended all 7.5 hours of the workshop, so I circulated a sign-up sheet at each session and crosschecked it with an attendance form that each participant filled out at the end of the event.

You had 16 presenters, counting the panelists. How hard was it to find presenters?

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of presenters who made their way to me. The 16 educators who presented came from a network of nearly 30 interested parties. The most significant of these was the participant list from the original half-day event, which I used to make a call for proposals. A few others contacted me after I posted the same announcement on a listserv for Colorado science educators. I met others by attending various area lectures and events having to do with evolution. Being connected to the university was very helpful overall in organizing presenters, since 15 of the potential presenters were affiliated with CU as a former student, current student, or faculty member.

You held the workshop on a Monday shortly after school was out. Why during the summer?

It was not possible to reserve the university lecture hall and other rooms during the academic year. I also wanted to avoid times of the school year when teachers are under a lot of pressure. The weekend was an option for reserving rooms at the university. I had been told, however, that weekend events are fairly unpopular with teachers, and they are definitely unpopular with university people. I considered a Monday holiday but found through an e-mail survey that holidays were also unpopular with teachers. I think the week after school gets out is good, and the week before school starts again may be even better. Of course, scheduling is complicated by the fact that school districts have different starting and ending dates. On the other hand, I have also been told that you get more no-shows in the summer than on school-year Saturdays. This year we had 30 no-shows, which was disappointing. If we do a summer event next year, we'll overbook a few to avoid this problem.

And, finally, what may be the big question for some: How much time did you spend?

About 80 hours during the semester, 40 in the last week before the workshop, and about 20 hours in follow-up work such as arranging for credit and assembling data. Other grad students spent about 40 hours altogether, but most of that was the day of the workshop, unless they were presenters. Presenting, by the way, is an excellent opportunity for a grad student to get some experience.

Any further advice for people who want to organize a series of workshops of their own?

Carpe diem! If this appeals to you, there's no reason to delay action. There will always be pressures on your time, and the issue is perennially controversial. On the other hand, just a few e-mails are likely to net you some committed, passionate helpers. Don't be shy about asking for help from local businesses, universities, and museums. I am willing to answer questions any time; just e-mail me at

We have high hopes that this workshop will be repeated annually and further that it will be emulated in other states and at other universities.

By Sarah Wise and Matt Young
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.