Controversial Topics In Science

In science classes, we have the opportunity to talk about many potentially controversial topics. This can be a blessing and a curse, depending on how the conversations are managed. I found an approach to evolution that has worked really well for several years. Now, I am considering how to better approach climate change.

I teach in a Catholic school and have more freedom than some of my public school counterparts. I can discuss God and religion-based ethics if they are warranted. This becomes very helpful when certain topics arise. How? Well, when I begin our evolution unit I am able to honestly tell the students I am not teaching you anything the Catholic Church does not agree with. With this statement, some of them stop ignoring me and start to accept that maybe they are “allowed” to learn about this topic. I am very clear, though, that I am teaching them science. Not all of our students are Catholic and I am sure to address the need for respect of different views as we encounter controversial topics. They do not have to believe what I am telling them, however, I expect them to understand the science being taught.

Opening the conversation of respect of other viewpoints facilitates productive discussions. We do not actually talk about other viewpoints on evolution, but we are aware that not everyone in the room can accept it in the same way. Several times I may need to reiterate that I need them to learn the ideas and the processes of evolution not as fact but as scientific theory. (Side-note: Another great topic to bring up here would be the use of the word theory in science).

In the years prior to acknowledging other viewpoints, I had several students shut down and not engage in the content at all. To them, this topic was absolutely off limits and they would not participate. Unfortunately, I did not know then how to navigate well and would avoid the controversy. Now, though, by starting with the conversation of respect for different viewpoints and focusing on the science, all students are encouraged to engage in the topic.

Evolution is not our only controversial topic. Sadly, in my opinion, climate change is a controversial topic. Because it is not tied to religion, I cannot have the same starting conversations with climate change. What do we do then? I cannot force a student to accept climate change as reality. I can, though, explain the science and then task them with uncovering what climate change can do to our planet and our lifestyles. We can also charge them with developing strategies to reduce our impact on the planet. This is where it gets fun and exciting. When I ask students to create, develop, invent, design (insert your own favorite synonym here), they become engaged. It doesn’t matter if they don’t agree with climate change, they have to design a solution to a problem that exists. The science suggests this problem is a result of our actions, and they get to try to solve it. In this way, I have taken the controversy out and increased the reality of the situation. Of course, we discuss how these problems are a result of or a contributor to our changing climate.

One last thought, on many controversial topics, I do not allow my own opinions to be obvious. If asked directly, I likely will turn the question back as something like, “Does it matter what I believe? What does the science suggest?” Being a science teacher, it would seem obvious what side of the fence I stand on, however, I don’t need to publicly proclaim it. Unfortunately, the students grab onto controversy and will try to stir up things by declaring Mr. SoandSo says climate change isn’t real, or Mrs. Whatsitcalled says evolution isn’t real. When they try to do this, I simply remind them we are all entitled to our own opinions. Though we need not agree, we need to be respectful. And, most importantly, LEARN THE SCIENCE! 🙂



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