TOPEKA, Kan. — Students in Lisa Volland’s advanced biology class examine flowers, lemons and corn under the microscope, pondering how the plants evolved over time to improve their chances of survival.
The Topeka West High School teacher does not discuss the biblical story of creation or “intelligent design,” just “the big e-word,” as she jokingly calls it.
“I don’t think you can talk about living organisms without talking about evolution,” she said. “We don’t talk about religion.”
Classrooms like Volland’s have come under scrutiny — again — in Kansas’ seesawing battle between left and right over the teaching of evolution.
The battle could heat up over the coming weeks, with Kansas’ State Board of Education expected to revise its science standards in June.
In 1999, the board deleted most references to evolution in the standards, bringing international ridicule and wisecracks from the late-night comedians. Elections the next year made the board less conservative, resulting in the current standards describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn.
Last year’s elections gave conservatives a majority again, 6-4. A subcommittee plans six days of hearings in May, and advocates of intelligent design plan to put nearly two dozen witnesses on the stand to critique evolution.
National and state science organizations plan to boycott the hearings, contending they are going to be rigged in favor of intelligent design.
“We are concerned that the hearings will be an attempt to give scientific credibility to a nonscientific concept,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Evolution says species change in response to environmental and genetic factors over the course of many generations. Intelligent design — viewed by many scientists as merely repackaged creationism — holds there is evidence that the universe was designed by some kind of higher power.
At a minimum, conservative groups like the Discovery Institute want to see science lessons in Kansas include more criticism of evolution.
“We don’t think any textbook is good in presenting the scientific weaknesses,” said John West of the Seattle-based organization.
Scientists fear that that will open the door eventually to incorporating intelligent design and creationism.
Similar battles have been waged in the past few years in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ohio’s state school board adopted lesson plans last year that were praised by intelligent design supporters.
Some Kansans are uneasy about evolution because of their religious faith and want to see alternatives given equal time in the classroom.
“Students ought to be given the opportunity to hear both sides,” said Angel Dillard, the mother of two Wichita girls.
The state board’s standards determine what is on statewide tests, but local school boards decide what is actually taught and which textbooks are used.
In Volland’s Topeka district, for example, little or nothing is said about creationism and intelligent design in biology classes.
Similarly, at Blue Valley Northwest High in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, teachers do not have to mention alternative theories, but biology teacher Jeremy Mohn did so anyway this spring, in addition to spending a month talking about evolution, including why peacocks have long tails.
At Topeka West High, Stephanie Bailey, a 14-year-old who previously attended a Lutheran school, is skeptical of evolution, particularly the notion that man and other animals have common ancestors. “Scientists don’t have all the answers,” she said.
But Emily Hane, a 17-year-old in Volland’s class, said: “If you don’t understand evolution, you don’t really understand biology.”
In any case, she said, creationism has, in fact, come up in school — in history class, when the topic was the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a Dayton, Tenn., teacher was convicted of teaching evolution.
“We’re being exposed to ideas other than evolution,” Hane said.