As a federal judge hears arguments over whether a Pennsylvania school district can include "intelligent design" in its biology curriculum, Dan Barbour fears that the New Mexico high school where he works could face a similar showdown.
The school board in Rio Rancho, N.M., voted in August to allow the discussion of alternative theories to evolution in high school science classes. Critics say that could mean intelligent design, and some faculty members are averse to teaching a concept whose scientific validity has been questioned, said Barbour, the school's science and math director.
"The thing that makes me nervous is that in the classroom a teacher is to be unbiased, but students are allowed to express their opinions. Can a teacher remain unbiased? Can we keep it from becoming a preaching session?" he said.
Science educators around the nation are closely monitoring the trial, which involves eight Pennsylvania families that have sued to have intelligent design removed from the Dover Area School District's biology curriculum. They allege that it is essentially a religious concept akin to creationism, and teaching it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
"If the door is open for nonscientific viewpoints to be addressed . . . I would imagine it would make some [teachers] rethink their profession," said Cindy Workosky, spokeswoman for the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington.
Intelligent design supporters argue that life on Earth was the product of an unidentified intelligent force, and that natural selection cannot fully explain the origin of life or the emergence of highly complex life forms.
The school board policy in Dover requires students to hear a statement about intelligent design before classes on evolution. The statement says Charles Darwin's theory is "not a fact" and has inexplicable "gaps." The board's lawyers contend that the reading of the statement does not constitute teaching.
"Everything I do in my classroom is teaching," Dover biology teacher Jennifer Miller said when she recently testified in the ongoing federal lawsuit. She has refused to read the statement.
Rick Cole, a science teacher at Los Lunas High School in Los Lunas, N.M., taught the concept alongside evolution in biology class for 11 years but was ordered last year to stop after a parent complained to the principal.
The teachings avoided religious discussions, Cole said. According to student surveys he collected throughout the time he taught intelligent design, 98 percent of the nearly 1,000 students he taught preferred a side-by-side presentation, he said.
"When it comes to the origin of life, it's been very much a closed market, and no opportunity to consider alternative explanations," said Cole, who hopes to add intelligent design back this year. "The majority of science teachers choose to avoid the subject because of the controversy; they would just rather not even teach it."
Intelligent design and other alternative theories became part of a high school social studies class in Columbus, Ind., after 1,300 residents petitioned the school board in 2002 to give creationism equal time with evolution.
Greg Lewis, social studies department chairman at Columbus East High School, developed a Human Origins class as an elective. Aside from a few media calls, he has received no inquires, he said.