Before the Brainerd School Board approved a new science curriculum for seventh and eighth graders, board member Sue Kern asked about creationism, a topic she has pushed to be taught in the school district in the past.
Tim Murtha, director of teaching and learning, presented materials for seventh grade life science and eighth grade physical science curricula to the board Wednesday, May 27, as a recommendation from Forestview Middle School science teachers and the district advisory committee.
The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Science Dimensions curricula presented are designed to address Next Generation Science Standards, a multi-state effort to create new education standards rich in content and coherent in manner across various disciplines and grade levels.
Content for seventh grade life science classes under the new curriculum includes: heredity and inheritance; structure of molecules and organisms; interactions, energy and dynamics in ecosystems; and evolution.
Content for eighth grade physical science classes includes: matter and its interactions; motion and stability; energy; and waves and their applications.
Students at both grade levels will learn the content through exploring phenomena or engineering problems; looking at data and empirical evidence to understand phenomena and solve problems; developing possible explanations of phenomena; designing solutions to engineer problems; and communicating reasons, arguments and ideas to others.
“It provides for (teachers) an organizational spine around which to wrap their OER (open educational resources) work,” Murtha said of the curricula.
And in the event further distance learning is required in the future, Murtha said curriculum materials provide an online component allowing for direct instruction to continue even if students are not present in the classroom.
The new curricula will cost the district $113,000 over eight years for curriculum resources, along with a one-time $5,000 charge for professional learning.
Murtha noted there are also state standards for American Indian education in science the district is required to meet, and materials for that area of study will supplement the curricula.
If supplementary materials can be used, Kern asked if the district can add in content about creationism as well.
“The reason I ask that is not my own personal opinion but that there’s so much evidence that has changed over the years, and for the sake of developing critical thinking for our students,” she said. “You can only have critical thinking if both sides of a thing are presented. And I feel like that is important. I would like to see students learn to have critical thinking and not just memorize some things and move forward.”
Science is always changing, Kern noted, and scientists are always making new discoveries. She referenced the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas, which, according to its website, aims to research evidence and display exhibits supporting biblical creation. Kern also mentioned the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which some creationists believe shows evidence that geological formations believed to take millions or billions of years to form could have actually happened in much less time.
“I just am always a seeker of truth, and I would like to see that added to the curriculum,” Kern said. “I would never expect you to not teach what we’re mandated; I’m totally on board with that. But I think we could add a piece there.”
Murtha said he appreciated Kern’s question and her respect for the district’s obligation to fulfill certain teaching standards.
“But we need to be clear,” he said. “Creationism is not science because it is not falsifiable.”
Murtha added there are bodies of laws and court decisions in the state of Minnesota stating it is not appropriate to teach creationism in schools.
“That’s not our decision to make,” he said. “We’ve committed ourselves and our teachers to teaching science. … And our teachers have done a great job of teaching science, and that’s what we need to remain to do.”
In the 2000 case Rodney LeVake v. Independent School District 656, the Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed the case of LeVake, a high school biology teacher in Faribault, who argued for his right to teach evidence both for and against evolution. School district officials said the material he wanted to teach did not match the district’s curriculum. Given the large amount of case law requiring a teacher to teach the curriculum of its school district, the judge declared LeVake did not have a free speech right to override the curriculum.
Kern maintained her position, saying she wants to see the district teach the science part of creationism.
“I just think that we’re missing something there,” she said.
Murtha said he respectfully disagreed but appreciated Kern bringing her concerns forward.
“I appreciate that we can discuss the concern in a responsible and safe manner,” Murtha said. “You represent a portion of the community as a school board member, who deserves to have its views honored and openly portrayed at school board. And I hope that this discussion in no way creates animosity with the district.”
Kern thanked Murtha and voted against the adoption of the new seventh and eighth grade science curricula. The measure passed 5-1.
Kern faced backlash over similar statements during a board meeting in September, when Murtha and high school science teacher Craig Rezac discussed the high school science curriculum.
Kern questioned the validity and practical benefits of teaching evolution to students. She said then Darwin’s theory dated back to the 1800s and has never been proven. She also asked how the district can teach Christian students who are taught to disagree with evolution.
Rezac said there had not been any evidence to disprove evolution and argued Christianity does not necessarily conflict with the theory of evolution. He said science is based in fact, though, and it is his duty to teach science and not religion.