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Tennessee governor allows bill targeting science education to become law

After the US Supreme Court's 1987 decision forbidding the teaching of creationism in science classes, those who objected to the teaching of evolution modified their ideas slightly. They relabeled these ideas "Intelligent Design." In the wake of that tactic's defeat in the courts, the opponents of science education retooled again.

This time, they targeted a number of state legislatures with two categories of bills that shared nearly identical wording. This tactic saw success in Louisiana, although a number of similar bills were considered in other states. They've now achieved their second success—the passage of a law in Tennessee.

One approach to diluting science education was a series of bills that allowed schools to use supplementary materials in science classes; conveniently, the anti-evolution Discovery Institute published a supplementary text at about the same time.

An alternate approach has appeared in a number of bills (again, all with nearly identical language) that would protect teachers who present the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories, although the bills single out evolution, climate change, and a couple of topics that aren't even theories. Again, the goal seems to be to use neutral language that will allow teachers to reiterate many of the spurious arguments against the widely accepted scientific understandings. Tennessee's House and Senate had passed a bill that took precisely this approach.

The state's governor, saying the bill doesn't "bring clarity," has decided not to sign it. But he's decided not to veto it either, which will allow it to become law.

Although a detailed discussion of open issues within all scientific theories might make some pedagogic sense, the bill will undoubtedly function as its designers intended. Teachers with a strong agenda will be able to bring up discredited arguments against the mainstream scientific understanding. And, should they ever do that in front of a student from a family with equally strong views, the result will inevitably be a lawsuit that will hold the local school district responsible.

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"Teach the controversy" science education bills advance in Tennessee, Oklahoma

Earlier this week, legislators in Tennessee approved a bill that singles out public school science education for special attention. Now, the Oklahoma House has passed a very similar bill that attacks an identical range of subjects that the legislation deems controversial: biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Both bills contain identical language, saying they "shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine." There's also identical language about how they're intended to "help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens." However, the subjects they target are not areas where there are significant scientific controversies; either the bills' sponsors are poorly informed (and thus shouldn't be injecting themselves into science education), or they have non-educational goals in mind.

In any case, the legislators want to do what they can to enable science teachers to teach the controversy. To that end, they're basically attempting to block any educational authority—school board, principal, the state board of education—from punishing a teacher for covering the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." The Oklahoma bill goes a bit further, adding protections for students who choose voice their disagreements with the science in any medium.

Given the staggering amount of scientific-sounding misinformation available on topics like evolution and climate change, these bills are a recipe for chaos in the science classrooms. It's a chaos that state legislators are inviting local school districts to sort out at great expense via lawsuits.

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Indiana backing away from bill allowing creation "science" into classrooms

Earlier this week, we reported on efforts by an Indiana state legislator who was interested in getting creationism inserted into the state's science classrooms. He managed to get a modified bill, one that was less sectarian but still overtly promoted religion, passed by the state's Senate. Yesterday, however, the leader of the Indiana House voiced unease about having the state wade into an area that the Supreme Court has declared an unconstitutional promotion of religion. 

Many similar bills are introduced in state legislatures each year and, in cases where their sponsors speak to the press, they tend to reveal a great deal of ignorance regarding both science and the law. In terms of science, they tend to misunderstand the meaning of the term "theory," think that there are multiple scientific explanations for life's diversity, or suggest evolution is a theory for life's origin. The Indiana bill's sponsor, Dennis Kruse, appears to get all of these wrong.

When it comes to the legal issues, many of the sponsors of these bills seem to be blissfully unaware of precedents, including Supreme Court decisions, that have determined that teaching creationism is an unconstitutional promotion of religion. Here, Kruse is an exception: he is aware of the precedents, but is hoping his bill will prompt a lawsuit that will get the Supreme Court to turn its back on its own precedents. The House Speaker, however, has now said challenging Supreme Court decisions is "someplace we don't need to go," suggesting he will not bring the bill up for a vote.

ScienceInsider, in covering this decision, suggested national media attention to the bill had made it politically toxic. That, in turn, suggests that continued coverage of similar bills can play a vital role in promoting accurate science education.

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Indiana Senate passes bill putting religion in science class

Yesterday, after almost no debate, the Indiana State Senate approved a bill that would allow its schools to teach the origin stories of various religions when a class touches on the origin of life. It now moves on to the state's House, where one of its cosponsors is currently the Speaker of the House.

Although the bill as written could be used to create a comparative religion class, its sponsor, Senator Dennis Kruse, has made it clear that he hopes to see it foster the teaching of creationism in science classes. The original text of the bill explicitly mentioned creation science; it has since been modified to mention a variety of religions, including Scientology. In a brief interview, Kruse expressed disdain for evolution, calling it a "Johnny-come-lately" theory.

As with many sponsors of bills of this sort, Kruse is apparently unaware of what evolution describes (hint: it's not the origin of life) and of the scientific meaning of the word "theory," which is not broad enough to encompass religious teachings. Unlike many of those other legislators, however, Kruse seems to be aware that legal precedent, in the form of Edwards v. Aguillard, prohibits the teaching of creation science in classrooms. Instead, he hopes that some school district in his state will shoulder the cost of returning the issue to the Supreme Court, which he thinks may choose to ignore precedent and revisit Edwards.

The year is young, but the National Center for Science Education is already tracking six bills in various states that target science education.

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Science education group decides it’s time to tackle climate change

The National Center for Science Education has been defending the teaching of evolution since before Edwards vs. Aguillard, the 1987 Supreme Court decision that declared the teaching of creationism an unconstitutional promotion of religion. Although its primary focus is on supporting teachers and students by helping them handle public controversies caused by science education, the organization played a critical role in the Dover case, which blocked the teaching of creationism's descendent, intelligent design.

Although the organization's title refers to science education generally, evolution has been the primary area of science that has been under attack for reasons that have nothing to do with the latest research. But over the last several years, that's changed as more and more bills have been introduced that target both evolution and climate change. With times changing, the NCSE is changing with them. Today, it's announcing that its support of students and educators will be broadened to include climate change. We talked with the NCSE's executive director, Eugenie Scott, about the decision.

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MIT launching certificate program based on OpenCourseWare, open source platform

A decade after MIT began to put its teaching materials and lectures online via the OpenCourseWare platform, the university has announced that it will leverage these materials to provide an online certification program, currently termed MITx. Although these certificates won't have the same weight as an MIT degree, they will indicate mastery of specific subject areas. The whole system will be built on top of an open-source software platform, which may enable other universities to follow in MIT's footsteps.

The system will provide a complete online learning environment, with labs and the possibility for interactions with other students. After completing a set of course materials, students will get the chance to demonstrate their mastery of the topic, presumably through a test or interactions with MIT staff. You'll have to pay for the resulting certificate, but the preliminary noises suggest that they'll be a whole lot cheaper than an MIT education. Both OpenCourseWare and the MITx teaching materials will remain free—it's just the certificate that will cost money.

The first test of the system will launch in the spring. Once the kinks are worked out, more courses will follow, and the underlying technology will be open sourced.

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Science education prize goes to Open Source Physics

In an attempt to raise the profile of worthwhile science education projects, Science magazine has started handing out the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, or SPORE. This week's award is going to a project called Open Source Physics. Started by a group of college professors, the site offers simulation software on a wide variety of topics in the physical sciences (including astronomy), accompanied by guides and lesson plans that help integrate it into the classroom.

The software available on the site, as its name implies, all comes with the source code; it's written in Java so it will work across platforms. There are also libraries that take care of a lot of the heavy lifting for physics: drawing and plotting, differential equation solvers, exporting to animated GIFs and movies, etc., all available under the GPL for others to use to create their own simulations.

Setting up a useful site has been a learning experience for the people behind it; in accepting the SPORE, they write, "We learned that 'freely available on the Internet' is not enough. The process of establishing and cultivating an active international community that shares new simulations takes an ongoing commitment." That commitment seems to be paying off; the site is now serving over 10,000 visitors a month, which is pretty good for a fairly niche audience.

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