Assessment of Learning
Acceptance of evolution by UMass Dartmouth Biology Majors ranks among the highest in the United States
Fig. 1. Acceptance of evolution openly (A) or no opinion (B) by UMassD undergraduates as function of academic level: F (Freshman), So (Sophomore), J (Junior), S (Senior).
Acceptance of evolution increases with student academic level:
Figure 1 (above) summarizes the patterns of acceptance of evolution openly (A) or no opinion (B) among undergraduates at UMass Dartmouth as function of their academic level: Freshman (F), Sophomore (So), Junior (J) or Senior (Sr). Note that public acceptance of evolution in the United States of America (USA national) is about 40 percent and in New England 59 percent, the highest nationwide (horizontal lines in Figure; data from Pew RCPP 2005, The Gallup Poll 2006).
UMassD Biology Majors currently hold levels of acceptance of evolution comparable to those of the New England professors. Some history: Biology Majors in 2008 (black bars in Figure 1) had levels of “open acceptance” of evolution between 52.0 percent (Freshman) to 65.5 percent (Seniors). No opinion decreased from 47.9 percent (Freshman) to 34.4 percent (Seniors).
In contrast, Non-biology Majors’ (orange bars) highest levels of acceptance of evolution reached 54.4 percent among Seniors (a value that most likely remained unchanged by the time of graduation), comparable to the level of the “arriving-to-college Biology Majors” (52.0 percent), similar to the USA college graduates (53 percent, The Gallup Poll 2009), and below the New England average (59 percent). No opinion decreased as function of academic level but from 65.3 percent (Freshman) to only 45.6 percent (Seniors).
It is important to notice that after re-conceptualizing the Freshman Biology Majors courses Biology of Organisms BIO-121/122 and Laboratories BIO-131/132 (re-conceptualization began in the 2007-2008 academic year – to present), which now have a comprehensive evolutionary approach, all cohorts of Biology Majors (blue bars) have increased significantly* their acceptance of evolution, from 58.8 percent (Freshman) to 95.8 percent (Seniors). These values are comparable to the 97 percent acceptance of evolution by New England Professors (PhD holders; N=221, sample of 35 colleges and universities in the states of MA, RI, CT, VE, ME, NH), and rank among the highest nationwide; Paz-y-Miño C. & Espinosa 2011).
Longitudinal analysis of two Freshman cohorts (2008-9 or 2009-10) revealed significant increase in acceptance of evolution in a single academic year (means: 56 percent in September, 70 percent in December, and 80 percent in May; data Paz-y-Miño C. & Espinosa 2009 a).
FACTS ABOUT PATTERNS OF ACCEPTANCE OF EVOLUTION AT UMass DARTMOUTH: only Biology Majors are included***
66 percent are very concerned (22 percent) or somehow concerned (44 percent) about the controversy “evolution versus creationism versus intelligent design” and its implications for science education.
57 percent think that Intelligent Design is either “religious doctrine consistent with creationism” (30 percent) or “not scientific but proposed to counter evolution based on false claims” (27 percent).
66 percent think that evolution alone should be taught in science classes, but 25 percent believe that “equal time” should be dedicated to evolution, creationism and intelligent design (the latter declared unconstitutional –at public schools– by the USA Supreme Court in 1987).
80 percent think that “hearing about evolution makes them appreciate the factual explanation about the origin of life on Earth and its place in the Universe.”
88 percent prefer science courses where evolution is discussed comprehensively and humans are part of it.
64 percent have no problem answering questions concerning evolution in science exams, plus 28 percent think that science exams should always include questions concerning evolution.
73 percent either agree (50 percent) or strongly agree (23 percent) that “evolution is the unifying theme of all sciences.”
76 percent either strongly disagree (44 percent) or disagree (32 percent) with the idea that “it is possible to offer an excellent biology course that includes no mention of Darwin or evolutionary theory.”
86 percent consider that an acceptable definition of evolution is “a gradual process by which the universe changes; it includes the origin of life, its diversification, and the synergistic phenomena resulting from the interaction between life and the environment.”
92 percent think that evolution is either definitely true (69 percent) or probably true (23 percent).
79 percent think that faith in a God is NOT necessary for morality; 68 percent consider religion NOT to be very important in their lives; and 18 percent admit to pray daily.
78 percent know that humans are Apes, relatives of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.
58 percent consider themselves to be agnostic (38 percent) atheists (13 percent) or non-believes in any God (7 percent); 37 percent are religious, 5 percent very religious. Religiosity decreases from the Freshman (44 percent) to the Senior (29 percent) levels.
*Statistical significance refers to Chi-square and Sign tests p ≤ 0.05.**Data from Paz-y-Miño C. & Espinosa 2009 a b, 2011. ***Opinions vary depending on how related questions are formulated in surveys.
WHY DOES ACCEPTANCE OF EVOLUTION MATTER?
Because acceptance of evolution in the USA correlates positively with: (i) support to proper science education in public schools, (ii) support to science and technology as essential components of development and prosperity, and (iii) support to rationalism and freedom of thought. Ultimately, evolution is the unifying theme of all sciences.
WHAT IS AN EFFECTIVE WAY OF COMMUNICATING EVOLUTIONARY PRINCIPLES TO STUDENTS?
Comprehensively: (i) discuss the reality of evolution explicitly and directly, (ii) teach human evolution and place humans within the Apes, as primates, as animals, (iii) explain why the fossil record is discontinuous and incomplete, (iv) connect forensics, or the “applications of molecular techniques” (ca. 100 percent of Americans accept DNA forensic evidence in court; Carroll 2006) to the evolutionary implications of molecular evolution, e.g. DNA connects organisms via common descent, (v) discuss how the human mind is the product of evolution (Paz-y-Miño C. & Espinosa 2009 a b, 2011).