Bringing Evolutionary Science to the Community

Center promotes Darwin Day to inspire next generation of scientists.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Last year, Jory Weintraub, assistant director for education and outreach at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, sent teams of scientists to America’s heartland to mark Charles Darwin’s birthday. The idea was to bring evolutionary science to schools that weren’t likely to have the same access to resources as their counterparts in large cities.

The outcome of their school visits in Virginia, Iowa, Nebraska and Montana was a positive one. This year, they are preparing to do it again. In just a couple of weeks, to honor Darwin’s 203rd birthday Feb. 12, the biologists will be hitting the road in a repeat performance, this time to Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia and Louisiana. The scientists will speak to students, teachers and the general public about their research, and talk about careers in evolutionary biology; most important, they will try to convey why evolutionary science is relevant to everyone.

“Our goal is not to talk about any kind of perceived concepts about evolution, religion or creationism, but to talk about the exciting things that are going on in evolutionary science,” says Allen Rodrigo, the director of the center. “We want to encourage students to think about being scientists, and being scientists interested in evolution.”

The Darwin Day Roadshow is only one of many activities of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, which began in 2004 and is jointly operated by Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Currently, NSF supports the center with about $5 million annually.

The goal of the center is to address emerging or novel questions in evolutionary science and its applications by supporting research and education across disciplinary, institutional, geographic and demographic boundaries. “Evolution tells us stories about where we come from,” Rodrigo says.

Schools interested in hosting the visiting scientists for Darwin Day apply to the center, which takes great care in its advance preparations to avoid controversy. At the same time, the visiting teams strive to expose students to evolution information that is well-grounded in science.

“I did get a couple of questions based on common misperceptions, for example, ‘why did Darwin say we came from monkeys?’ (What he said, in fact, was that humans and monkeys shared a common ancestor),” Weintraub says. “In those instances, I simply responded to clarify the misconception, and the students seemed very responsive and accepting of the answer.”

The teachers were equally supportive, demonstrating “amazing initiative in planning activities for their students, colleagues and communities,” Weintraub says. “I was really blown away by the effort they put forth. One teacher took it upon himself to contact a local science center/museum, and set up an entire event, at which our scientists spoke, to which he invited science teachers from several surrounding counties, including one or two in a neighboring state.”

Several dozen science teachers from eastern Iowa and western Illinois listened to an evening of evolution, he says, adding: “The high school I visited in Virginia ordered a large birthday cake that read ‘Happy Birthday Darwin,’ and at the end of our presentations, we shared Darwin birthday cake with all of the students and teachers.”

Among its other education/outreach activities, center scientists travel to developing nations to teach evolution. “We see youngsters who have such potential, but don’t have the resources,” Rodrigo says. “That’s the saddest part, trying your best to energize and enthuse them about getting into science, but knowing that because of their circumstances, it will be difficult.”

Although center researchers are studying issues related to the natural sciences, they also are examining evolution and evolutionary processes as they apply to other areas, such as the social sciences, economics, and literature, to name a few.