Science gives Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science sites SPORE award

December 02, 2010

The Understanding Evolution Web site launched in 2004 in response to the need among schoolteachers for resources to help teach evolution. Before long, however, two interesting factors emerged. One was that the site was being used extensively by audiences other than K-12 classrooms.

"We were almost shocked at how the site was being used--everything from presenting material to school boards to teaching college-level courses," says Roy Caldwell, one of the site's developers, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and a curator at the university's Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). "We saw there was a bit of a vacuum out there in terms of accessible information about evolution."

The other discovery was that misconceptions about evolution lay in a broader misunderstanding about how science works. The team who developed Understanding Evolution saw that the lack of basic understanding about science was leaving the public vulnerable to misinformation about social issues, consumer choices, and policy decisions.

"There is a significant number of people who are confused about evolution because they are confused about science," says Judy Scotchmoor, who is the project coordinator and is in charge of education and outreach at UCMP.

Because of the important mission they took on with the Understanding Evolution site and then with a site designed to address the confusion regarding how science works--called Understanding Science--the site creators have been selected to win the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) award.

"Both of these Web sites are designed to give educators, students, and the general public the tools they need to move toward a more scientifically literate society," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science.

The journal Science developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to highlight the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new--indicating that these winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article about each award-winning site. The article about Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science will be published by Science Express on December 2 and in Science on December 24.

"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding online resources reach a wider audience. Each winning Web site is featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to valuable free online resources."

The sites really had their start in the home page of UCMP, which made its extensive collection of fossil and biological samples readily available to the public for the first time. Launched among the very first museum sites, the home page suddenly made it possible "to share this incredible research and intellectual product," says David Lindberg, also one of the developers of the award-winning sites, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and a curator at UCMP.

Scotchmoor, who taught middle-school math and science for 25 years before coming to the museum, saw the sharing of the fossils as a chance to convey the stories they represent to the public about the origins of life. As part of that outreach, the museum held a teacher workshop. There, it became very clear that teachers needed better tools to teach evolution, at least partly so they could answer the questions of students convinced that humans evolved altogether differently than other living species.

Questions and comments that visitors wrote to Understanding Evolution revealed the fundamental misunderstanding of science that was occurring in our culture. Basically, the creators of the Web site say, there was a poor understanding of the process that science uses to answer questions and provide answers, as well as what strengths and weaknesses are inherent in that process.

Scotchmoor, Caldwell, and Lindberg, as well as other scientists and teachers, saw that it was crucial to present science differently than is often taught in schools--as a specialized topic with its own language and rules that must be memorized exactly.

"Science is a creative process," Scotchmoor says. "There is not one single methodology that must be followed. We do a disservice to students when it is taught in a rigid format. That's where the 'aha' moment is lost."

Teachers have responded very positively to the sites, Scotchmoor says. "We get all kinds of great thank-you notes saying things like 'This is how I know I should have been teaching, but I didn't have the resources or the tools,'" she says. "The science is more alive for the students, much more dynamic, much more theirs."

The popularity of the Understanding Evolution Web site has boomed over the years. The site now averages more than a million page accesses a month during the school year. And as the site continued to grow, its developers discovered that 30 percent of its audience taught at the college level. Seeing this, the developers formulated plans to expand teaching resources that are geared to undergraduates, as well as lifelong learners.

As developer Lindberg says, both sites have morphed in response to their audience. At the time of the first site put up by the museum, the museum's home page, it was far from evident how far-reaching such efforts would become in terms of educational application and use by the general public. As the Internet developed, and use of individual Web sites evolved, the site developers were in some sense witnesses reacting to a whole new phenomenon.

"Sometimes old dogs do learn new tricks," Lindberg says. "We had to adjust our model about who our audience was and what our mission was."

"The two sites make evolution and the process of science accessible to an extra-broad audience at many different levels," says Caldwell.

Materials from the Understanding Science site have been incorporated into middle- and high-school textbooks by major publishers. Begun in 2009, the site averages 60,000 page accesses a month during the school year.

Scotchmoor hopes the SPORE award, which she calls "a real validation for great collaborative work that has gone on for quite a number of years," will bring more users to the Understanding Science site.

"It has so much to offer to a real variety of people."
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To visit the Understanding Evolution Web site, go to understandingevolution.org. For the Understanding Science Web site, go to understandingscience.org.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org) as well as Science Translational Medicine (www.sciencetranslationalmedicine.org) and Science Signaling (www.sciencesignaling.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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