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What I Taught my Science 9 Students this Summer!

Featured as a back-of-page article in the CSABC Quarterly Letter of September 2006

by Richard Peachey

In 1995, B.C. education minister Art Charbonneau laid down new curriculum guidelines for Biology 11 and 12. Charbonneau specified that science teachers "are only to provide instruction in classroom activities in accordance with the scientific purpose and scope of the learning outcomes set out in this curriculum guide" which did not include "creationism, . . . intelligent design theory, or other theories based on religious beliefs." This new anti-creationist approach was later incorporated into the curriculum guides of other science courses besides Biology.

These new guidelines, as stern and dogmatic as they appear to be (compared to earlier guidelines that allowed more academic freedom), still leave plenty of room for thoughtful science teachers to assist students in thinking critically as they interact with textbooks and other course materials. For example, the following are some of the issues I handled as I helped my students through the "Astronomy" section of Science 9 in summer school [in the year 2006].

1. The Earth: A Very Special Planet

The Science Probe 9 textbook advises students that Earth is unique within our solar system since it has an oxygen-containing atmosphere "that indicates the presence of life." As well, the text mentions that "more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface is covered with water or ice" (pp. 273f.). I decided to supplement this rather minimal information with a handout, "Planet Earth — A Well-Designed Place to Live!", which discusses a host of other features that make Earth much more habitable than either the other solar system planets or the more recently discovered "exoplanets." I also gave out a Vancouver Province article, "Why there's still no place like Earth" (July 16, 1999, p. A15). Earth's nearly circular orbit, optimum distance from the Sun, relatively rapid period of rotation, suitably inclined axis of rotation, magnetic field, chemical element abundances, and large Moon are just a few of the advantages enjoyed by living creatures. In addition, I showed my students The Privileged Planet, a video arguing that not only is Earth a great place to live, it's also a well-located platform from which to make scientific discoveries about our galaxy and our universe. Contrary to atheist astronomer Carl Sagan and his "Principle of Mediocrity," Earth appears to be a very special place!

2. The Sun: More Than" An Average Star"

The textbook calls our Sun "an average star" (section 14.1 heading, p. 292). I shared two articles with my students from the British publication New Scientist: "Thank our lucky star" (Charles Seife, Jan. 9, 1999, p. 15), and "What a star!" (Marcus Chown, June 26, 1999, p. 17). The second article begins: "Don't believe everything you read in books—our Sun is no ordinary star." The Sun, it seems, is "extraordinarily stable," unlike other "Sun-like" stars that produce enormous "superflares" once a century. Also, the Sun "is a single star whereas most stars are in multiple systems." Besides that, "It is among the most massive 10 per cent of stars in its neighbourhood. It also has 50 per cent more heavy elements than other stars of its [alleged] age and type." Furthermore, the Sun's unusual almost-circular orbit around the centre of the Milky Way "prevents it plunging into the inner Galaxy where life-threatening supernovae are more common."

3. The Mars Rock: "No Persuasive Evidence" for Life

The text encourages students to think positively about the possibility of extraterrestrial life: "In this activity, you will design an intelligent being that lives on a planet in some faraway part of our galaxy" (Activity 16C, p. 356). I cited statements from scientific articles indicating that evidence proposed in 1996 for "past life on Mars" has fallen on very hard times. "If there ever was life on Mars, ALH84001 [the so-called "Mars rock," found in Antarctica] offers no persuasive evidence of it" (Richard A. Kerr, "Requiem for Life on Mars? Support for Microbes Fades," Science, Nov. 20, 1998, p. 1398). I pointed out that the huge publicity procured badly needed funding for NASA: "Whether or not it turns out to be bunk, it's done its job" (Charles Seife, "Money for old rock," New Scientist, Aug. 8, 1998, p. 21).

4. "Big Bang": The Implausible Explosion

The text says, "Scientists use the Big Bang theory to describe the beginning of the universe that we are a part of today" (p. 351). I gave students a portion of an article describing what the "Big Bang" view actually teaches: "Suppose you accept the Big Bang. . . . You believe that a microscopic, transparent, empty point in primordial space-time contained not just one universe but enough potential for 100 million universes" (Gregg Easterbrook, The Globe and Mail, Oct. 24, 1998, p. D5). I also provided a recent article, "Bucking the Big Bang" (Eric Lerner, New Scientist, May 22, 2004, p. 20), which notes the concern of dozens of scientists over the many weaknesses of the dominant Big Bang view.

5. "Origin of Life": Not That Simple!

The text asserts: "Scientists think that [amino acids and other] molecules clumped together and gradually changed, forming the first cells" (p. 354). A typical glib textbook assertion! (See Massimo Pigliucci, "Where Do We Come From? A Humbling Look at the Biology of Life's Origin," Skeptical Inquirer, Sept.-Oct. 1999, pp. 21-27.) I showed my students just a few of the difficulties involved in the idea that amino acids could link up by unguided chemical reactions ("clump together!") to form proteins (which are the most common, most versatile biomolecules found in living cells).

For further reading:

"Planet Earth — A Well-Designed Place to Live!" <>

"Life on Mars?" <>

" 'Big Bang' — The Implausible Explosion!" <>

"Chemical Evolution: The Problem of Improbable Proteins" <>