College honors courses
provide the opportunity to step outside the typical curriculum to
explore interdisciplinary areas or controversial topics. This venue is
particularly appropriate for addressing the current societal debate
surrounding the teaching of “Intelligent Design” (ID) as an alternative
to evolution in public school science classes. Intelligent design is the
concept that life forms are too complex to have developed through
natural processes of evolution and instead began abruptly through an
intelligent agency (see Scott, 2004, for a concise summary of the main
The modern intelligent
design (ID) movement developed in the mid-1980s (Numbers, 1998) and
gained strength after the Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court
decision ruled unconstitutional the Louisiana law requiring balanced
treatment of “creation-science” and “evolution-science.” ID attempts to
escape issues of constitutionality by not overtly mentioning the
activities of a creator, but instead attributing Earth’s life forms to
an unspecified intelligent agent. However, in the recent Kitzmiller
et al. v. Dover Area School District decision (Jones, 2005), ID was
judged to be religious rather than scientific. Judge Jones’s decision
stated, “the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer
postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity” (Jones, 2005,
p. 25-26) and expert witnesses for ID made it clear that the designer is
supernatural and thus outside the realm of science. ID was also judged
not to be science because it has “failed to publish in peer-reviewed
journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the
scientific community” (Jones, 2005, p. 89). The court also found that
the primary argument for ID, Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible
complexity (Behe, 1996) “has been refuted in peer-reviewed research
papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large….
Additionally, even if irreducible complexity had not been rejected, it
still does not support ID as it is merely a test for evolution, not
design” (Jones, 2005, p. 79). The court also recognized that arguments
against evolution have been countered by the scientific community, but
even if they were valid, they would not support ID because the two are
not mutually exclusive (or the only) alternatives.
Despite the defeat of
Intelligent Design in the Dover case, proposals to include ID in public
school science classrooms as an alternative to evolution continue to be
argued at local and state levels (Branch and Scott, 2009). Thus courses
addressing the scientific, religious, philosophical, educational, and
political issues surrounding the ID/evolution controversy remain
relevant. In this paper, I describe a one-credit honors enrichment
seminar that was taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington
in Spring 2006, immediately following the Kitzmiller v. Dover
decision (Jones, 2005). The course provides a model, with associated
successes and challenges, for teaching about the controversy.
An honors course is
particularly appropriate for addressing the issues surrounding the
debate about teaching Intelligent Design in the public schools because
of the pedagogical approaches typically involved in honors courses.
According to West (2000), the goals of an honors education include
developing the abilities of students to reason, express themselves in
speech and writing, and to collaborate as well as to work
independently. This honors enrichment seminar was designed to further
these goals. In addition, an honors education should develop students’
capacity to “commit to a position, recognize that it may change, and
tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity” (West, 2000, p. 3). These goals are
particularly appropriate to the controversial subject matter of this
The UNCW Honors Scholars
encourages faculty to develop courses that “have less lecturing and
predigesting of material by faculty; make more use of primary sources
and original documents; encourage critical thinking and independent
scholarship; … focus on open discussion; follow a colloquium or seminar
format; allow professors and students to take risks.” These goals are
consistent with educational research that indicates that students learn
best by doing, e.g. through active learning and collaborative learning
rather than formal class lectures (Donavan et al., 1999). Thus this
course used a minimum of lecturing, focused on readings from primary
sources, and was based on small- and large-group discussions of
In Spring 2006 I
developed and taught a course entitled “Intelligent Design: An
alternative to evolution?” The course was a one-credit honors
enrichment seminar; honors students at UNCW are required to complete two
such courses, which include a component of participation in campus
events outside the classroom. Such courses bear the “HON” prefix rather
than a disciplinary designation and are often interdisciplinary. The
course enrolled 18 honors students, including 6 freshmen, 10 sophomores,
one junior and one senior (honors students at any level may take the
enrichment seminars, though many elect to complete this requirement as
freshmen and sophomores). Honors enrichment seminars at UNCW have no
prerequisites other than formal enrollment in the Honors Scholars
Program. The students represented a diverse range of fields as follows:
business - 5 students; education - 1 student; nursing - 1 student;
humanities - 4 students; social sciences - 4 students; natural sciences
- 3 students. In addition, two geology graduate students who were
interested in the topic attended class and completed the assignments but
did not participate in class discussion, in order to prevent altering
the experience for the honors students (they registered for a Directed
Individual Studies graduate course).
We met once a week for
70 minutes for ten weeks. The initial class meeting set the tone for
the course. Participants were asked to share their interest in the
topic and their stance on Intelligent Design. I began by sharing my
perspective (a paleontologist whose research focuses on evolution; a
person of faith and minister’s wife who finds no conflict between faith
and evolution; Kelley, 2000, 2009). Students were then invited to share
their perspectives. Most were curious about ID and knew it was a
national news item; about half the class was sympathetic towards the
teaching of ID and a third had not yet made up their minds. A minority
of four students opposed the teaching of ID in public school science
classes. The first session was also used to establish ground rules of
tolerance and respect within the course; all students were encouraged to
speak their opinions freely, and were reassured that no one would be
criticized (or graded negatively) for expressing his/her opinion.
The first session
concluded with a hands-on exercise on the nature of science. In keeping
with the goal that honors courses should foster collaboration, students
worked together to categorize a set of statements (Appendix A) as either
“science,” “religion,” or “something else.” (These statements were ones
I had composed and had used successfully in my geology courses that
consider the nature of science. Some statements come from my
paleontology background; some have a local flavor; they also reflect the
largely Judeo-Christian background shared by most of my students. The
list could easily be adapted by other instructors to fit their
particular situations, reflect other student demographics, or
incorporate other fields of study.) We then discussed the criteria that
students used to classify statements. This exercise was used to
reinforce the idea that science involves the study of the natural world,
that it consists of a set of tightly integrated facts and theories, and
that the explanations of science must be natural (because science
consists of hypothesis testing and only natural explanations are
testable). Students then worked together to categorize each statement
as either “fact,” “theory,” or “something else.” This exercise led to
discussion of how terms such as “fact,” “hypothesis,” and “theory” are
used in science (e.g., “theory” as a well-tested, repeatedly confirmed
explanation rather than a guess, as used in the vernacular).
Week two included the
only lecture of the semester. Because students varied widely in their
educational background and thus their understanding of evolution, I felt
that a lecture was the most efficient means of bringing all students to
a basic understanding of what evolution is. In this lecture, I
discussed three different meanings of the term evolution (Thomson,
1982): 1) change in life through time (which can be considered a fact)
and the evidence for it; 2) descent with modification (a very strong
theory that has been repeatedly tested and confirmed) and the evidence
for it; and 3) the process of evolution, especially what is mean by
natural selection and how it works (also theory).
The next seven weeks of
the course involved discussion of weekly readings from an anthology of
primary sources (Pennock, 2001). Pennock’s book, Intelligent Design
Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological and Scientific
Perspectives, is a compilation of writings with opposing views,
written by many of the key figures in the ID debates. Pennock’s book
was selected for its in-depth coverage of the key philosophical,
religious, scientific, educational, and political issues involved in the
ID debate. We focused on four main topics: 1) evolution and naturalism;
2) Intelligent Design (irreducible complexity and information theory);
3) theological perspectives; and 4) educational issues. Table 1 lists
the topics covered and the authors whose readings from Pennock’s book
Each week, prior to
class, students (and I) independently completed comparison charts in
which they listed the key points of the readings, contrasted the
opposing views of the writers on those points, and noted their own
response to those views. (Because this course received only one
semester-hour of credit, this approach was more appropriate than
requiring more time-consuming weekly essays.) Comparison charts were
graded based on thoroughness and analytical insight, rather than on the
opinions expressed; the charts represented 50% of their grade.
Consistent with the expected pedagogy for Honors courses, the class
followed a seminar format; class participation represented 20% of their
grade. The first 20 minutes consisted of small-group discussion to
encourage students who were less comfortable in large-group settings to
express their thoughts. During the small-group (3 - 4 students)
discussion, students expressed initial reactions to the readings and the
time was used to resolve any points of confusion concerning the
readings. Because of the breadth of disciplines represented, students
were able to assist one another in resolving questions (e.g., science
students helped classmates with scientific concepts; philosophy and
religion students assisted in understanding theological and
philosophical arguments). I migrated among groups to assist as needed
and to observe the student interactions. The remainder of the period
was spent discussing as a class a set of questions
Table 1. Topics
discussed, authors read for each topic, and questions posed for class
discussion in Honors enrichment course on Intelligent Design
Evolution and naturalism
Does science require
ontological naturalism or only methodological
Is evolution based on a
philosophical assumption rather than evidence?
Is Darwinism incompatible
with belief in God?
If evolution by natural
selection is wrong, is creationism right?
Evolution and naturalism
Plantinga vs. Ruse
Are religion and science
How should science be
Should miracles be
allowed in science?
Should faith be used to
How strong is Behe’s
argument that “irreducible complexity” requires ID?
explanations acceptable in science for unexplainable
Should ID be required to
explain how design would be carried out?
To what degree should ID
allow evolutionary processes?
Intelligent Design and Information
Which is the better
argument for ID, irreducible complexity or information
Do you agree that natural
causes can’t increase “complex specified information”?
What is meant by
“chance,” and what is its role in evolution?
Plantinga, Van Till, and McMullen
Is conflict or
cooperation a more appropriate metaphor for science and
Should science and
scripture correct each other?
Is evolution religiously
Does scripture demand
rejection of evolution?
Murphy, and Peacocke
Are theism and naturalism
If there is a God who is
active in the world, is it through the natural order or
by supernatural miracles?
What are the roles of
chance and law in how life has come to be the way it is?
Educational and political issues
Is ID a type of
If creationism were
taught in public schools, would it help or harm
Should we avoid teaching
subjects that might contradict someone’s religious
If creationism were
taught, which version should be taught?
Does the constitution
protect or prohibit teaching of creationism in schools?
that I developed
relating to the readings. Questions were specifically designed to
provoke debate (see Table 1 for examples). I moderated the class
discussion but deliberately refrained from injecting my own opinion into
the discussion in order to maintain a neutral environment.
The Kitzmiller et al.
v. Dover Area School District decision, published just a month
before the class commenced (Jones, 2005), served as a case study to
conclude the course. This approach allowed students to synthesize the
ideas they had been developing throughout the semester and apply them to
an actual legal case. Students read Judge Jones’ 139-page decision and
were encouraged to read a white paper on ID by Lofaso (2005). The final
week’s discussion focused on the court case; students also wrote a final
essay answering the question “Do you agree with Judge Jones’ decision?
Why or why not?” This paper represented 30% of their grade. Students
were given latitude in terms of their approach to the question, but they
were expected to reflect on the decision in the context of the assigned
course readings. Grading was based not on the opinion expressed but on
the quality and thoughtfulness of the argument, the understanding of the
constitutionality issues involved, and the degree to which the essay was
informed by the semester’s readings.
The honors experience
was also enhanced by a visit to campus by philosopher of science Michael
Ruse, sponsored by the UNCW Honors Scholars Program. In keeping with the
expectation that honors enrichment seminars involve experiences outside
the classroom, students in the class met with him for a question and
answer period, attended his public lecture, and also had dinner with
him. Students had read Ruse’s article in the Pennock anthology at the
beginning of the semester and benefited greatly from the opportunity to
meet him and discuss questions arising from his work.
Outcomes, Successes and Challenges
The approach taken in
this course was successful in informing students about the issues
involved in the debate about teaching ID, and in enabling them to make
an informed decision on the topic (Table 2). This assessment is based
on their statements in class discussion, the comments included in their
weekly comparison charts, and especially on their statements in the
Table2. Views of
students in Honors course on Intelligent Design concerning teaching
Intelligent Design in public school science classes.
students in class supporting, opposing or undecided about
teaching of ID
* one of these students
proposed teaching ID in a required origins course
rather than a science class
At the beginning of the
course, a third of the students knew too little about ID and the issues
involved in the public controversy to be able to take a position. For
instance, one commented in the final paper:
walked into the Honors Seminar Intelligent Design course on the first
day, I had no idea where I stood on the intelligent design vs. evolution
debate. I had signed up for this course in a desperate attempt to
figure out what was going on.
By the end of the
course, all 18 students had reached a decision on the appropriateness of
teaching ID in public school science classes. Sixteen of 18 students
concluded that Judge Jones had made the correct decision, though some of
these students remained sympathetic to ID. One paper commented, “While
I agree with Judge Jones’ decision, I am pulling for the defense to
regroup and fight on.” Another stated, “I personally feel there is
validity to the argument of intelligent design, but at this time see no
appropriate way to include in a high school science classroom.” In the
final class discussion, several students expressed a desire to include
ID somewhere in the curriculum (e.g., as an elective course or in a
social science course) but stated it should be excluded from science
Based on student
comments during discussions and in the papers, at the conclusion of the
course students better understood: 1) the difference between science and
religion; 2) what evolution is and how it works; 3) ID and the arguments
for and against it; 4) philosophical, theological, scientific,
educational and political issues involved in the ID controversy. They
were also better prepared to make informed political decisions about the
teaching of ID in public school science classes. The following comments
in student final papers indicate the course accomplished the above
- “Before taking
this class, I was unsure of where I stood in the evolution vs.
creationism debate. After learning all of the aspects of each side,
I am now able to take a stance.”
- “Reading and
comparing excerpts from different authors with opposing ideas not
only helped me to find my own beliefs on creation and evolution, but
also helped cultivate a more discerning method of learning crucial
to any successful scholar.”
- “In this class I
have been able to fully evaluate where I stand on the subject of
evolution versus creationism. The readings and discussions
throughout the course of the semester have been a big help in
allowing me to reach my conclusion.”
One of the more vocal
students added a personal note: “I just wanted to thank you for
everything. I enjoyed the manner that you taught the class and that not
only allowed for significant debate on the various subjects, but also
that you put up with me!”
A course such as the one
described is not without challenges for the instructor. Students ranged
from freshman to senior level, and represented a great diversity of
disciplines; only three were interested in pursuing degrees in the
natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and geology). Thus students had a
very uneven level of knowledge about evolution, which was not entirely
ameliorated by the one lecture I gave on the topic. Constraints were
also imposed by the time available; the course would adapt well to a
two- or three-credit hour setting, which would enable more thorough
coverage of all topics, including providing a firmer foundation on the
topic of evolution. Because I chose to take the role of discussion
facilitator, with minimal lecturing, it was difficult to correct
misconceptions. However, the diversity of student backgrounds allowed
students to correct one another (e.g., science students could correct
other students’ misconceptions in scientific areas). Indeed, the
students may have learned more from correcting and being corrected by
each other than if I had taken a more traditional role in this course.
This honors enrichment
seminar provided an appropriate venue for examining the debate about
teaching intelligent design (ID) in public school science classes while
fulfilling the goals typically recognized for honors courses. A seminar
format in which students read and discussed contrasting views on the
topic succeeded in informing students about the issues involved in the
debate about teaching ID, and in enabling them to make an informed
decision on the topic.
I thank the University
of North Carolina Wilmington Honors Scholars Program, and especially
Kate Bruce and John Myers, for support of this course. I thank two
anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.
Statements classified by Honors students as “science,” “religion,” or
“something else,” and as “fact,” “theory,” or “something else.”
1. Jesus will return on
January 1, 2007.
2. The Civil War was
fought to put an end to slavery.
3. An atom is made of
protons, neutrons, and electrons.
4. Igneous rocks form
by cooling of magma.
5. The South Brunswick
High School Cougars are the best men’s soccer team in North Carolina.
6. Birds are the
descendants of dinosaurs.
7. Jesus died for our
8. Ice ages occur during
cold phases in cycles of the Earth’s orbit, axial tilt, and the
precession of the equinoxes.
9. Extinction of the
dinosaurs was caused by the impact of a large asteroid.
10. The Grand Canyon
was dug by 40,000 angels.
11. There are more
Episcopalians than Presbyterians in this room.
12. God created the
13. Life has changed
14. Human destiny is
controlled by our astrological signs.
15. Toyotas are better
vehicles than Chevys.
16. The Bible is the
word of God.
17. The sea covered
this area 2 million years ago.
18. There is one God
and Allah is His name.
19. The Earth is about
4.6 billion years old.
20. Nuclear power is
safer than burning coal.
Behe, M. J. (1996). Darwin's Black Box: The
Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. The Free
Press, New York, 307 p.
Branch, G., & Scott, E. C. (2009). The latest face of
creationism. Scientific American 300(1):92-99.
Donovan, S. M., Bransford, J. D., & Pelegrino, J. W.
(eds). (1999). How people learn, bridging research and
practice. National Academy Press, Washington D.C.
Jones, J., III. (2005). Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School
District. Memorandum Opinion (December 20, 2005). US District Court
for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Case 4:04-cv-02688-JEJ Document
Kelley, P. H. (2000). Studying evolution and keeping the faith. Geotimes
Kelley, P. H. (2009). Teaching Evolution During the Week and Bible Study
on Sunday: Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Intelligent Design, P.
163-179. In Schneiderman, J.S., and W. D. Allmon (eds), For the Rock
Record: Geologists On Intelligent Design Creationism. University of
Lofaso, A. M. (2005). The Constitutional Debate over Teaching
Intelligent Design in Public Schools. American Constitution Society.
Numbers. R. L. (1998). Darwinism Comes to America. Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, MA, 216 p.
Pennock, R. T. (2001). Intelligent Design and its Critics:
Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives. MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA, 805 p.
Scott, E. C. (2004). Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction.
Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 272 p.
Thomson, K. S. (1982). Marginalia: The meanings of evolution.
American Scientist 70:529-531.
West, R. (2000). Teaching and Learning in Honors: An Introduction. In
C. L. Fuiks & L. Clark (eds.). Teaching and Learning in Honors
(p. 1-6). National Collegiate Honors Council.