Archive for July, 2011

Movie review: No Dinosaurs in Heaven

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

A documentary focusing on the controversy between evolution and creationism is currently touring the country. On Aug. 28 the Tallahassee Scientific Society will screen No Dinosaurs in Heaven at the Challenger Learning Center IMAX Theatre. Dr. Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education is expected to be in attendance.

I saw the film a few months ago courtesy of Jezebel Productions. I then re-watched it recently to refresh my memory and revise my notes. Below is my review. Feel free to use the comments to chime in with your opinions.
No Dinosaurs in Heaven
New York: Jezebel Productions, 2011. 53 minutes
written, produced, and directed by Greta Schiller

Award-winning director Greta Schiller’s newest documentary No Dinosaurs in Heaven addresses concerns about who is teaching students what in classrooms across America—a cultural conflict that has been flaring up off and on for decades. The film’s central question asks: What can be done about teachers who teach biology or other related life sciences and yet don’t accept the central tenet of the field, evolution?

Schiller explains early in the film that she had recently returned to school to earn a master’s degree in science education. While taking a graduate course in biology, she was shocked to discover that the adjunct professor did not accept evolution. This motivated Schiller to pick up the camera once again to film this documentary.

Schiller takes viewers through two sometimes intermingling storylines. In one, Schiller and her crew travel on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon hosted by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). This is an annual excursion that takes participants on a journey through geological time as the hosts present both the modern scientific and Christian fundamentalist creationist explanations for how this natural wonder was formed.

The other storyline featured Schiller’s former City College of New York biology professor, Femi Otulaja, and a few of Schiller’s classmates from that class. Through interviews Schiller gives viewers a sense of the classmates’ varying impressions of what had happened in the classroom. Otulaja was also given a good amount of screen time to explain his beliefs and approach to teaching biology and evolution.

Mixed in at key points of the film were short interviews with public school students and their teacher and parents while exploring the American Museum of Natural History, clips from an Answers in Genesis presentation featuring famous creationist Ken Ham, and a talk by NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott at a National Science Teachers Association conference.

The Grand Canyon trip yielded spectacular images and interesting information about geology and creationist beliefs. However, the trip participants were much more important to Schiller’s film’s central question than the scenery. One-on-one interviews and candid group conversations were the meat of this storyline. Geologists, a high school biology teacher, a minister, and even an editor of Nature magazine all offered insights into the teaching of evolution.

Unfortunately, those pieces that were so important to the film were nearly lost under a flood—excuse the pun—of field lectures about creationist beliefs. The creationist explanations and accompanying scientific geology information were certainly interesting, but at the same time they softened the film’s focus too much. If their inclusion was meant to bolster Schiller’s more general theme of scientific literacy, they failed. While there are people who use the creationist arguments presented here, the much more prominent anti-evolution activists nowadays go to great lengths to distance themselves from the nonsense of Biblical flood geology. All such proponents have to do is say they don’t advocate for this creationist view in order to dismiss the entirety of the film as irrelevant.

The college professor storyline provided a fascinating look into how a teacher with strong religious convictions tried to reconcile them with a profession that can run counter to those beliefs. Oftentimes, it looked like Otulaja was uncomfortable in front of the camera. He tended to stumble through his explanations, but that in itself offered an insight into the inner workings of his mind. It appeared that he was trying to balance being true to himself with defending himself against accusations raised by his students while also wanting to look reasonable and fair. These conflicting objectives were clear in his mixing up of words and his look of confidence one moment and look of insecurity the next.

Schiller did a good job of including a variety of student voices in this storyline. Some clearly thought that Otulaja had done something wrong. Others gave him the benefit of the doubt and weren’t quite sure what the fuss was all about.

The big flaw in this storyline, though, was Schiller’s deep personal involvement. Her voiceover narrative gave the distinct impression that she had a vendetta against Otulaja. The film edged dangerously close to looking like a “hit piece” aimed right at her old professor. To avoid this, she could have taken a wider view of the situation by including mentions of cases similar to Otulaja’s. There are plenty of studies, statistics, newspaper headlines, and court cases related to this type of situation.

Unfortunately, there were additional distracting flaws. NCSE and Scott were the stars of the film, so to speak; however, at no time was it ever explained what NCSE does. As such, the film’s credibility might suffer a bit in the minds of any viewers who have never heard of the organization. But one area that nearly demolished the entire film was the use of a group of toy dinosaurs as stand-ins for students while a transcript of conversations from Otulaja’s classroom were reenacted. These segments were truly cringeworthy. Even worse, they reinforced the perception that Schiller was personally attacking Otulaja. The whole film, which was good overall, suddenly looked amateurish as a result.

The bottom line is that this film certainly explores important concepts concerning science, education, religion, and science literacy. It would be useful in sparking conversations about these subjects that could possibly even find an answer to Schiller’s main question. No Dinosaurs in Heaven is worth watching, but it would have benefited from another round of editing.

Professor says he was dismissed for teaching evolution

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Dr. Jonathan Coffman is claiming religious discrimination was a factor when he was terminated from his position as a Director of Administration and Associate Professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He filed paperwork July 28 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations, saying that his May 11 dismissal was because of his non-religious beliefs. A significant aspect of Dr. Coffman’s claim is that he was told by his Department Administrator to not teach about human evolution in his microbiology and immunology courses. Dr. Coffman refused and thus faced retaliation.

Palm Beach Atlantic University is an interdenominational Christian university whose website says “your Christian faith will thrive.” Dr. Coffman started work at the University’s Gregory School of Pharmacy in mid-2009. “I was offered a good salary, and I never suspected I would encounter any issues with Human Evolution at the graduate level,” he said. But during his two years there he encountered a deeply-held creationist belief among the school’s leadership. Dr. Coffman recalled a time when the Dean of Academics told all of the pharmacy students during a bible study meeting that it never rained on Earth before Noah’s flood. Instead, water came up out of the ground like sprinklers.

In the Spring term of 2010, Dr. Coffman said that the Department Administrator requested that human evolution not be taught in Dr. Coffman’s courses. When he continued to teach it anyway, he said that he was moved from his executive office space and into a tiny adjunct office. Furthermore, he was excluded from participating in a university leadership counsel and denied funding to travel to an American Society of Microbiology meeting. Finally, in May of this year he was given a letter that stated his position was eliminated.

Dr. Coffman said that he believed academic freedom is supposed to be preserved in academia regardless if the school is private or not. But that didn’t seem to be the case at Palm Beach Atlantic University. “Other faculty in the sciences at PBA embrace evolution but many don’t talk about it, are scared to talk about it, or just talk about microevolution,” he said. He has a background in molecular biology and a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Tennessee, Memphis.

Vandals story in paper

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

The Independent Alligator newspaper has now published a story about the vandals who have been striking pro-evolution displays on cars. This time the victims were named and quoted. (When I first reported it here on this blog, one person was out of the country and the other wished to remain anonymous for the time being.)

“I can’t prove who did it and I don’t want to jump to any conclusions,” [Brian] McNab said. “But I think it’s obvious that it’s someone who has a strong opposition to evolution.”

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but where do you draw the line?” McNab said. “I think they ought to learn something about science.”

And yet again the campus police say no reports have been filed when both victims have, in fact, reported the incidents.

[edited to add: There is erroneous information going around that the victims had never reported these incidents to the university police department. In fact, there were multiple reports filed. The latest incident was filed with the police on June 23, 2011. Case report number was 11-1178. ]

Texas science materials hearings

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Texas is undergoing the dreaded approval process of science instructional materials. Their state board of education held a hearing and debate about it today and it looks like the circus will spill over into tomorrow. The Texas Freedom Network has great live-blogging posts up. Here is just one of their posts. Make sure to check them all out.

Orlando Sentinel guest column on science

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Paul Cottle, physics professor at FSU and blogger at Bridge to Tomorrow, had a guest column published in today’s Orlando Sentinel: Better prepare students for science, engineering.

Even though science and engineering offer the best economic opportunities for college graduates, it is all too common for students in Florida and elsewhere to arrive at a university unprepared for the challenging bachelor’s-degree programs in these subjects. The calls by President Obama and business leaders to expand the science, technology, engineering and math work force seem empty when students can’t pass introductory college courses in basic science.

Calculus and physics are the high-school courses most strongly correlated with success in bachelor’s-degree programs in science, technology, engineering and math fields, a 2007 study by faculty at the University of South Florida found.

We need to make preparing students for college majors in science and engineering a priority in Florida. This is not only important for the state’s economy, but also for our students. After all, the top eight best-paid majors for new college graduates listed in the Spring 2011 report of the National Association of Colleges and Employers are in science and engineering fields.

TV story about anti-evolution vandals

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Information from my earlier post about vandals attacking cars that have Darwin fish emblems and evolution bumper stickers on them attracted the attention of station GTN (Gainesville Television Network). Here is a short story about it: Vandals strike two vehicles belonging to UF Professors. The only odd thing in the story is where the reporter says that the university police had not heard of the vandalisms. It’s odd because both victims had, in fact, filed reports with the campus police.

[edited to add: There is erroneous information going around that the victims had never reported these incidents to the university police department. In fact, there were multiple reports filed. The latest incident was filed with the police on June 23, 2011. Case report number was 11-1178.]

Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

The long anticipated report “Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas” is now available for downloading from The National Academies Press. You can download the “prepublication PDF” for free.

Also see Curriculm Matters blog, Education Week article (it looks like you have to subscribe to see the whole thing, though), and the Gradebook blog.

Evolution is a Life Science “core idea,” which should make for some colorful fireworks among the anti-evolution crowd. Here are some excerpts:

The life sciences focus on patterns, processes, and relationships of living organisms. Life is self-contained, self-sustaining, self-replicating, and evolving, operating according to laws of the physical world, as well as genetic programming.

From viruses and bacteria to plants to fungi to animals, the diversity of the millions of life forms on Earth is astonishing. Without unifying principles, it would be difficult to make sense of the living world and apply those understandings to solving problems. A core principle of the life sciences is that all organisms are related by evolution and that evolutionary processes have led to the tremendous diversity of the biosphere. There is diversity within species as well as between species. Yet what is learned about the function of a gene or a cell or process in one organism is relevant to other organisms because of their ecological interactions and evolutionary relatedness. Evolution and its underlying genetic mechanisms of inheritance and variability are key to understanding both the unity and the diversity of life on Earth.

Just as the life sciences are anchored by core principles, this framework is organized around four core ideas reflecting unifying principles in life sciences. … Finally, the core ideas in the life sciences culminate with the principle that evolution can explain how the diversity that is observed within species has led to the diversity of life across species through a process of descent with adaptive modification. Evolution also accounts for the remarkable similarity of the fundamental characteristics of all species.

Biological evolution explains both the unity and the diversity of species and provides a unifying principle for the history and diversity of life on Earth [8]. Biological evolution is supported by extensive scientific evidence ranging from the fossil record to genetic relationships among species.

The evolution section has these main points:

— Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity
— Natural Selection
— Adaptation
— Biodiversity and Humans

National science standards framework soon to be released

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

I had posted earlier that the framework for new national science education standards produced by The National Academies was delayed. The specfics behind the delay are still unknown. But now the Curriculum Matters blog announced that the framework finally will be released next week.

A prominent panel of experts convened by the National Research Council is expected to issue a final framework to guide the development of what’s being billed as “next generation” science standards for K-12 education.

The next step is for the national nonprofit Achieve to work in collaboration with states and various experts to actually craft a set of national standards.

Stay tuned! Board on Science Education website here.