Models for the Teaching of Origins: Case Studies and Pedagogy


This education symposium, at the ASA Annual Meeting in 2006, was organized and moderated by
• Dorothy Chappell, Dean of Natural & Social Sciences at Wheaton College (and Professor of Biology),
• Uko Zylstra, Dean of Natural Sciences & Mathematics at Calvin College (and Professor of Biology).


Talk-Abstracts are below, plus links to pages published in the ASA journal (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith) or in this website.  In the near future (by September 2008) other teachers in the symposium will be invited to share their course-details on the web.



Sunday, July 30, 2006


1:30 PM

Developing and Implementing an Interdisciplinary Origins Course at a State University

Keith B Miller

        As part of the mission of the new “Center for the Understanding of Origins” at Kansas State University, a new undergraduate general education course entitled “Origins: Humanity, Life, and the Universe” was developed and implemented in Fall 2005. The objective of the course was to provide students with a truly interdisciplinary learning experience in which the conclusions of modern science were taught in their historical and cultural context. The course would emphasize the dynamic and historically embedded processes by which new scientific views are proposed and ultimately accepted.

        A major goal was also to help students understand the nature and limitations of science, and the similarities and differences between scientific investigation and other ways of knowing. Philosophical and literary reflections on the scientific enterprise were a critical part of meeting this goal.

        For nearly a year, faculty from both the sciences (Physics, Biology, Geology) and the humanities (Philosophy and English) met regularly to discuss the objectives and structure of the course. Much of the early discussion among the faculty focused on understanding our diverse perspectives and pedagogical approaches. This was critical in helping us better understand each other, and the institutional and professional barriers to cross-disciplinary learning. We had to learn first from each other before we could attempt to teach an interdisciplinary course.

        The most challenging aspects of implementing the course were overcoming the inherent problems with a team-taught course (six teaching faculty), and helping students see connections between the diverse topics and ideas presented. Assessment of student learning proved to be the biggest practical difficulty.


2:00 PM

• Six Easy Pieces: One Pedagogical Approach to Integrating Science/Faith/Origins into College-Level Introductory Physics Courses

Sean M Cordry

        In this presentation, I will compare my experience having taught two different “stand-alone” Science/Faith/Origins classes with my experience at trying to integrate Science/Faith/Origins issues into my introductory physics courses. Each setting has its own unique goals and challenges. (Both sets of experiences have been in the context of Christian liberal arts colleges.)

        The “integration” setting has proven to be far more challenging; I have tried several approaches to meet this challenge: the assignment of readings from an auxiliary text, having students collect Science/Faith articles from various sources and then “journal” about them, and simply presenting a limited number of topical lectures. This third approach has been the most “successful” by far. Part of the success of these topical lectures has been due to their intriguing and nonthreatening nature; in the order of presentation they are:

  1. What do we do with biblical descriptions of nature that we know to be factually wrong?

  2. Tohu wabohu and the search for order and pattern in Genesis One and physics;

  3. Transitions to chaos and parameter sensitivity;

  4. The great “anthropic coincidences” of nature;

  5. An infinite number of unobservables or a single infinite unobservable? and

  6. Layer by layer, decay by decay—or The Physicist’s Guide to Dating a Planet.

I will present a synopsis of each lecture, when each occurs during the physics course, the pedagogical structure of the presentation order, and reasons why I think this approach has been the most successful of those I have tried.


2:30 PM

Religion and Science in Modern America: An Interdisciplinary Course on Origins

Edward B Davis

        For several years, I have taught a general education course at Messiah College called “Religion and Science in Modern America.” Designed for a 3-week January term, the course focuses on biblical, historical, and theological issues related to origins. This presentation explains how the syllabus and the most important assigned readings are designed to cause students to reflect critically on their own beliefs, while helping them to understand in some depth a range of approaches to origins issues. The course is always over-enrolled, and student interest and enthusiasm are unusually high.


3:00 PM

Using Case Studies to Teach Evolutionary Biology

Robin Pals-Rylaarsdam

        Evolutionary biology is a difficult topic for many students at Christian colleges. The very term “evolution” raises defenses for many, and misconceptions for nearly all. In an effort to help students better grasp the true methods, observations, and working hypotheses in evolutionary biology, I have turned to using case studies in my introductory majors’ biology course.

        One case, focusing on speciation, asks students to develop field and laboratory experiments that can address whether two populations of stickleback fish are a single species, in the process of becoming reproductively isolated, or two species. Students are given the experimental data, asked to interpret it, and to refine their hypotheses. The populations are behaviorally isolated but the hybrids are not yet infertile, illustrating the difficulty of defining them as separate populations or species.

        The second case study puts students in the role of a high school biology teacher who is asked by her principal to consider including intelligent design into the biology curriculum. Students learn about the intelligent design movement, gather arguments for and against its merits, and develop a position statement describing the propriety of its inclusion in their curriculum. Advanced students follow this activity with a team-based debate about Behe’s irreducibly complex flagellum. This case study is currently being used as part of an educational research project to determine if using it affects students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward intelligent design differently than standard lecture sessions.

        Students from a Christian college (Trinity Christian College) and a state university (Western Illinois University) are participating in this work. Preliminary results from these surveys will be described.



Sunday, July 30, 2006


3:45 PM

Students Formulate Views on Viruses and Their Place in Creation or the Fall

Arlene J Hoogewerf

        When were bacteria and viruses created, and for what purpose? Based on microfossils in rocks and examination of highly-conserved genes, scientists suggest that bacteria were the first living organisms on earth. Scientists have found less physical evidence for viral origins, and currently hypothesize that viruses are derivatives of intracellular parasites or subcellular components, or that viruses co-evolved with cells. Genesis does not describe the creation of microbes.

        Because we understand the beneficial role of bacteria in nutrient cycling, decomposition, food production, and digestion of foods in the gastrointestinal tract of animals and humans, it is easy for many Christians to assign a God-ordained purpose for bacteria and view them as part of the original good Creation. For many, placement of viruses in the original Creation is not as easy. Many think of viruses and the diseases they cause as a direct consequence of the Fall. But if viruses are part of the original, good Creation, then we dishonor God if we malign this aspect of creation.

        I desire for students in a Medical Microbiology course to wrestle with how viruses fit with their Christian world view. In 2005, as part of a larger writing assignment on viral diseases, students were asked to write about whether viruses were part of a good Creation or part of the Fall. Students were instructed to include at least one outside source for this part of their paper. 74% of students (n = 66) stated that viruses were part of creation, and that the Fall has perverted their beneficial, God-ordained purpose to a pathogenic one. 26% of students indicated that viruses were of the Fall, stating that viruses are always pathogenic and produce negative consequences. 73% of students used the Bible as their outside resource. Students either emphasized God as sovereign Creator of things, or used verses to support the idea that God uses pathogenic viruses to punish sinful people.

        Based on these observations, the assignment in 2006 will include a pre-paper small group discussion of some positive roles of viruses and the dynamic nature of host-virus relationships. Changes in student responses will be examined.


4:15 PM

• Teaching Christian Students about an Old Universe

Deborah B Haarsma

        Some students at Christian colleges and universities enter their science courses with deeply held opinions about the age of the universe, often deeply intertwined with their Christian faith. This makes issues of age different from other course topics (students typically don’t arrive with a strong, faith-based opinion about star colors or galaxy collisions!). If students’ views about age and time-scales are ignored, they may resist learning the scientific information about age, distrust the teacher’s faith commitment, and/or feel forced to choose between their faith and a career in science.
        A properly designed curriculum leads students through a sequenced encounter with the issues and gives them space to work through them on intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels. Key elements of such a curriculum include establishing lines of communication and trust with the teacher, and providing students with information about the range of views held by Christians. I will share the techniques I use in my introduction astronomy courses at Calvin, with a focus on their underlying pedagogical motivation. As time allows, I will discuss variations appropriate for advanced physical science courses, for courses at secular colleges and universities, and for church presentations.


4:45 PM

• Theories of Origins: A Multi- and Interdisciplinary Course for Undergraduates at Wheaton College

Stephen O Moshier, Raymond J Lewis, Larry L Funck, William R Wharton, and John H Walton

        Theories of Origins is an upper division science course for undergraduates at Wheaton College, designed to explore a range of theories for the origin of the cosmos, earth, life and diversity of life and humankind. It is a four-credit, full semester, nonlab course in the general education curriculum, intended to follow completion of a lab course (e.g., freshman geology, biology, chemistry, or physics). Most students in the course are non- science majors.
        This multi- and interdisciplinary course incorporates physics, geology, chemistry, biology, and biblical studies in an examination of scientific theories of origins. In this way, students get a broad education in the sciences as well as a sustained consideration of origins from scientific and theological perspectives. The course is team-taught by faculty representatives from each science department and the Bible- Theology department.

        Scientific origins theories are controversial, indeed often considered antagonistic to biblical faith, for many people in the evangelical subculture. Surveys of students entering the class reveal a range of positions on origins questions, often tracking the results of national polls. Mainstream scientific approaches to origins are emphasized in the course, but alternative or “anti-establishment” approaches such as creation science and Intelligent Design are presented in the course because of their influence among Christians. Science and Bible professors present models for relating scientific and biblical accounts of creation.

        A course objective is to give students a background for evaluating the merits of scientific and theological claims for origins theories. Students’ understanding of scientific content is measured by exams and homework assignments. Students’ critical thinking on matters of faith- science integration is assessed by their work on study questions relating lecture and assigned reading material. This course embodies the educational purpose of Wheaton College to “combine faith and learning in order to produce a biblical perspective needed to relate Christian experience” to the needs of contemporary society.


5:15 PM

Teach the Controversy over Darwinism: Sample Curricular Modules

Mike N Keas

        Since 1999 I have worked with Discovery Institute to develop AP and college biological origins curriculum. Some of this curriculum will be published in 2006. I would like to demonstrate samples of this new curriculum and explain why this supplementary material is critical scientifically and pedagogically.

        One way to motivate students to study science and to think critically is to examine case studies of scientific controversy. Through case studies, students will gain insight into the standard scientific procedure of inferring the best explanation from among multiple competing hypotheses. Charles Darwin argued: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question” (Origin of Species, p. 2).

        In today’s climate of public educational policy, this would mean, at a minimum, teaching not just the strengths of Darwin’s theory, but also the evidence that challenges it. For example, any complete theory of biological origins must examine fossil evidence. The fossils of the “Cambrian explosion” show virtually all the basic forms of animal life appearing suddenly without clear precursors. It is not merely the geologically sudden appearance that is notable, but the observation that major categories (animal phyla) appear before the multiplication of small differences among species. Darwin’s theory predicts the opposite: small differences multiplying, and by means of natural selection, later giving rise to major anatomical differences. Students ought to know about this evidential challenge to Darwinism, but few biology textbooks mention it.

        A “teach the controversy” approach presents biology in a livelier and less dogmatic way. Students will learn science as it is actually practiced. Scientists often debate how to best interpret data and they even argue over what counts as legitimate “scientific explanation.” Controversy is normal within science (not just an intrusion). Students will learn to distinguish better between evidence (factual data) and inference (reasoning to conclusions). Students need these skills as citizens, whether they choose careers in science or other fields. Teaching multiple sides in an “issues approach” to science has, of late, been recognized as a superior educational approach.



Monday, July 31, 2006


9:45 AM

• Using Survey/Response Writing Assignments to Stimulate Classroom Discussion

Loren D Haarsma

        In general physics courses for science majors and education majors at Calvin College, some time is dedicated to perspectival issues. Because of the limited time available, it can be difficult to induce many students to participate in classroom discussion—or even to share their opinions.

        For the last several semesters, I have used brief survey/response writing assignments on topics such as methodological naturalism, Scripture and nature, determinism and chance, historical science, philosophical interpretations of science, looking for scientific evidence of miracles, and the development of first life on earth. Students are presented with statements or questions (e.g., whether they would prefer that abiogenesis of life on earth would ultimately be shown to be scientifically explainable, or would ultimately be shown to be scientifically impossible) and asked to write their opinion in one or two short paragraphs. The statements and questions are crafted to induce a substantial amount of disagreement amongst the students. I have found that when students begin discussion with their own writings in front of them (I don’t collect the writing assignments until the end of class), many of them are far more likely to share their ideas and opinions, and they seem more engaged with the subsequent discussion and lecture.


10:15 AM

• Using Galileo to Teach Darwin

Craig A Boyd

        Professors at Christian Colleges and Universities often dread teaching Darwinian theory of evolution because it has the potential to cause distress among students, parents, faculty and administrators. Theories of evolution, it is assumed, challenge Christian views of creation— and maybe more importantly— the idea that the Bible is the uniquely inspired Word of God. However, Darwin’s advocacy of evolution was not the first great crisis to confront people who were both scientifically literate and deeply religious. Galileo’s famous encounter with the Church provides a helpful model for faculty members in negotiating the science-religion terrain since there are so many similarities in the two cases.

        Ernan McMullin’s use of the “principle of accommodation,” “the principles of the priority of scripture,” and “the principle of prudence” help us to understand Galileo’s principles of interpretation but we can also apply them to the Darwinian controversy. Since the geo-centric model of the cosmos is no longer widely accepted, it presents a fairly safe starting place for professors who wish to discuss issues concerning the broader science-religion relationship but also the more specific issues of evolution and the Christian faith. This approach to teaching Darwinian evolution has the following advantages: (1) it considers the issue within its historical context (2) it helps faculty and students attempt to see that both religious texts as well as the natural world require interpretive tools, and (3) it introduces the materials in an appropriate developmental manner.


10:45 AM

Teaching the “Science and Theology of Origins” at Montreat College

Lloyd J Davis

        “The Science and Theology of Origins” course was taught at Montreat College in the spring 2005 semester for the first time. While student interest was high, only 16 students from a wide variety of majors were able to fit the course into their schedules. Lloyd Davis (physics/ mathematics) was the lead professor but was accompanied by Dr. Brad Daniel (life sciences) and Dr. Darwin Glassford (Bible). All three met with the class for all sessions which were once a week for three hours.
        Three major Christian approaches to origins as well as naturalism were presented and discussed throughout the semester. The only text was Three Views on Creation and Evolution
edited by J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds but various other readings were assigned to supplement the text.

        The main goal of the course was to demonstrate the complexity of the issue and cause the students to think more deeply about how to understand and interpret nature and Scripture. To this end, the students were required to read two books, one by a scientist and one by a theologian, and write a review of each. One of the major components of the grade for the course was a research paper expressing and defending the student’s position on origins. These papers were submitted in writing and read before the class with discussion ensuing.

        At the end of the course, the students were grouped into debate teams and a debate was held between the three main Christian views and one made up by the fourth group. In an effort to ensure the engagement of the students, another major factor in grading was class participation. While we were moderately successful at reaching our goal for the course, there were some obvious ways that it can be improved before it is taught again. My presentation will provide the details of the course and what we would do to improve it in the future.


11:15 AM

The Coming Demise of Intelligent Design and Implications for Teaching About Origins

Richard P Aulie

        The increasing public approval of Intelligent Design (ID) prompts questions about the best way to teach origins. For many, it is an antidote to secularism and a synonym for God. The public exerts pressure, and numerous biology teachers skip evolution altogether. Life is so complex, we are told, that it cannot be explained by evolution, but by an inner, nonmaterial agent. All the same, ID will inevitably fade away, and it is instructive to remind ourselves why. This is because it stands outside and contrary to the rich heritage that flows fruitfully to us from the Christian Renaissance. Science arose when our Christian forebears, among them Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, and Newton, piously believing that nature is created, believed that nature therefore is wholly material, entirely separate from God. Today, biological evolution is a logical consequence because Darwin was an intellectual descendant of the Christian Renaissance.
        ID stands contrary to this tradition because of its two theological defects. The ID movement admits that much of nature can be explained by the scientific method, but that only an intelligent agent can explain the complexity of nature. ID therefore implies, first, that God created two kinds of nature: one kind explained by the scientific method; the other by an intelligent agent. Second, because this “agent” is said not to be God, it must be a proxy or surrogate that acts in place of God. This agent is nonmaterial, arises from Aristotelian thought, and has no biblical warrant. ID therefore promotes an unorthodox view of creation.

        The best way for a biology teacher to deal with origins is to teach good biology. To do this, one should remember that (1) modern science arose in the Renaissance, (2) science arose when our Christian forebears, believing devoutly that God creates nature, understood that to invoke God or a nonmaterial agent would get a person nowhere in understanding the material connections that explain how nature works, (3) evolutionary theory, arising from biblical roots, released biology from its Aristotelian sources, and (4) ID stands contrary to this tradition, and for this reason cannot survive.


11:45 AM

Evolution Wars: A Failure to Communicate

Uko Zylstra

        It is my contention that a major contributing factor to the “evolution wars” as Time magazine refers to the ongoing debate about the teaching of evolution and Intelligent Design is a failure to properly define the meaning of evolution. The term evolution really has multiple meanings. Yet, when people talk or write about evolution or even the theory of evolution, they seldom distinguish between the various meanings of evolution. So when someone asserts that “evolution is a fact,” it is not clear in what sense evolution is a fact. Further probing will generally make obvious the different degrees of empirical evidence that supports the different meanings of evolution. The result is a deep failure to communicate because the different parties talking about evolution do not always use the same meaning of evolution.
        This also holds for classroom discussions about evolution. If we are to think “critically” about the discussion of evolution, creation, and Intelligent Design, then we need to communicate more effectively by making these important distinctions with regard to the different meanings of evolution.




In addition, and independent of the symposium, the meeting hosted these talks about education:


Pedagogy: Teaching the Whole Is Greater than the Sum of the Parts

Robert M Bartholow

        It is well-established pedagogy to give an overview of the topic before breaking the subject into smaller elements. Yet academics, western medicine, and news reporting attempt to reduce the overall picture to a single element. What are some of the consequences of this approach?

Consider an academic discussion of the origins of life. A chemist may begin with the basic in an area of expertise, and develop one possible sequence:

  properties of elements

  formation of amino acids

  formation of proteins

  random formation of life.

        Given a partial understanding in any one step, is it any wonder that subsequent steps become more difficult and speculative?

An alternative is to speculate on the overall picture, then an examination of elements may provide a better understanding of the whole. One possible sequence is:

  intelligent design

  formation of building blocks

  formation of designed building blocks

  formation of a designed, complex whole.

        An accompanying poster session gives a specific example of ends-directed research. A typical hydrolytic protein must incorporate both acidic and basic amino acids to react correctly. However, the two specific types of amino acids cannot be explained by random formation of amino acids.

        The typical justification of reducing questions to the lowest common elements has been defended by Stephen Jay Gould. He pictures reality separated into two domains, like oil and water. Gould maintains that theology has nothing to do with science. However, separation of reality into compartments is flawed. Both oil and water obey the same rules, and an investigation of one helps with an understanding of the other. Fill a bottle with cooking oil and dyed water. Cap and shake. In a turbulent world, you cannot see the dividing line between the science of elements and the theology of the bigger picture. Looking at the whole helps to teach that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.


The Impact of In-Class Devotions About a Christian Worldview on Student Views of Science and Faith

Bryan J Isaac

        Students entering college commonly have strongly held views on science-faith issues. More often than not, those views are shaped by their parents and by their own faith background—not by any direct study of the issues involved. At conservative Christian colleges, this can make coverage of certain essential topics, such as the Big Bang Theory, a challenging and sometimes divisive undertaking. Some students want to know more about such theories, and some close their minds to any possible consideration of them. Others ask questions to probe the elegance and intricacies of these theories, while others seek to undermine the theory before it has been presented.
        Over the past eight years, I have put together a semester-long series of 5–8 minute devotional thoughts aimed at exploring what might be a Christian world view of the sciences. In addition, since most of my students are professing Christians, we consider the value of the evidence in the universe relative to the value of the Scriptures. We cover the various explanations of origins (both of humans and of the universe) held by scientists and Christians.

        One underlying framework I impose on these discussions is that they do not focus on advocating for or against any specific view (especially since a large majority of those in my classes hold to a single view of origins), though we occasionally probe the merits and implications of certain arguments. Instead, I aim for the perspective that the natural evidence can be used as a witness for the presence and character of God, and work to illustrate the use of the natural evidence as such a witness.

        Data showing students’ responses have come from assigned written papers and more recently from surveys administered both on the first day of class and at the end of the term. These illustrate the success of this method in increasing students’ willingness to explore the issues at the intersection of science and faith.


Teaching a Christian Engineering Ethic

William M Jordan

        Teaching engineering ethics in a Christian university has some unique opportunities and challenges. Students need to be exposed to issues that all engineers face. At a Christian university, we have the opportunity to add additional insights into the analysis process. This paper describes the author’s efforts to teach a Christian Engineering Ethic.
        Baylor’s engineering programs require all students take an ethics course. We encourage them to take the engineering ethics course. For this course, I am using two different textbooks. The first one is a traditional engineering ethics text: Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases by Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins. The second one is a Christian ethics text: The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics by Stanley Grenz. Additional material is used from other sources. One useful source is the book, Fundamentals of Ethics for Scientists and Engineers by Seebauer and Barry, that advocates a virtue ethics approach to engineering ethics.

        Each week the students read about one chapter in each book. The lectures for the two books are interweaved so that the students see how a Christian ethics perspective can relate to engineering practice. Many different ethical theories, such as virtue ethics, respect for persons ethics, and utilitarian ethics are presented in both books, but with obviously different perspectives. As one of their assignments, the students are asked to write a paper on their personal ethical system. They also are required to use some Christian ethics insights when they write about different engineering ethics dilemmas that have been presented to them.

        Ethics is also related to all of an engineer’s life, not just the part done during the working day. As part of this class, the students watch videos where the main character faces one or more serious ethical issue. Sometimes the character responds well, and sometimes poorly. The students use the insights they have gained from this course in this analysis. Some of the movies analyzed include: Citizen Kane, Chariots of Fire, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Out of Africa, and Quiz Show.



Stewardship of Creation
The ASA Meeting of 2006 also included many talks about ways for colleges to help students learn the knowledge, attitudes, and strategies that can help them improve our stewardship of what God has created.

homepage for
Questions about Creation in Christian Education