Institute for School Partnership’s Darwin Day celebration to highlight evolution education

Prominent biologist, WUSTL alum Sean B. Carroll to keynote weekend events that also include Assembly Series talk

Charles Darwin was the originator of the biological theory of evolution.

Teaching biology without evolution, David Kirk said, is like teaching chemistry without atomic theory or physics without the theory of gravity.

“When biology is taught without evolution, it turns into a kind of foreign language, just a memorization of terms and concepts,” said Kirk, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “None of it makes sense until you understand that both the unity and the diversity of today’s living world are the result of a long evolutionary history.”

Kirk has spent a lifetime teaching developmental biology and doing research on the evolutionary origins of multicellular organisms. In semi-retirement, he now devotes much of his time to making sure evolution is a key part of a sound K-12 science curriculum.

He is doing so as a faculty fellow in WUSTL’s Institute for School Partnership (ISP), which will kick off a weekend of evolution education activities Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7 and 8 – its second annual Darwin Day celebration – with workshops for teachers and students. Darwin Day is recognized internationally on or around Feb. 12, Darwin’s birthday, as a celebration of science and humanity.

Highlighting the weekend on the WUSTL campus: a visit from Sean B. Carroll, PhD, vice president for science education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology, Genetics and Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Carroll, who is also a WUSTL alumnus (LA ’79) and was a student in one of Kirk’s courses when he was a freshman, is widely considered one of the world’s most productive investigators in the relatively new field of “Evo Devo,” or evolutionary developmental biology research.

Carroll to speak for Assembly Series

Sean B. Carroll, PhD, is an evolutionary biologist, popular author, educator, and WUSTL alumnus (LA ’79) who discovered the beauty of the humanities while studying biology as a student here. His embrace of both worlds informs his most recent book, “Brave Genius: A Scientist’s Journey from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize,” and is the title of his Assembly Series lecture at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, in Graham Chapel.

Carroll’s first biology course as a student at WUSTL was taught by David Kirk, PhD, who is now professor emeritus in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences.

“It was obvious to many of us from the very beginning that this was a kid who was going to go places,” Kirk said, “but I couldn’t have imagined then how far he’d go! He’s now considered among the top four or five evolutionary biologists in the field of developmental evolutionary biology. It’s humbling to have one of your former students go so far beyond his teacher.”

Among the teaching methods Carroll is known for is the use of film production in teaching evolutionary concepts. “You have to see the visuals he uses in his lectures to understand what a brilliant mind he has and how he uses technology with science fundamentals,” Kirk said. “It’s not surprising as a result that the HHMI made him their vice president for education.”

For more on Carroll, visit here.

“Teaching evolution is fundamental to understanding basic biological concepts, and we’re delighted that Dr. Carroll is returning to campus for our Darwin Day celebration,” said Victoria L. May, assistant dean of Arts & Sciences and executive director of the ISP. “The ISP is committed to helping teachers teach evolution in the K-12 classroom and gives them resources they need to tackle this important topic.”

Resources such as teaching materials and lesson plans found on the ISP’s website,, and seminars and workshops that the Darwin Day events will provide.

“There are so many misconceptions about teaching evolution,” said Elizabeth Petersen, a seventh-grade teacher at Ladue Middle School and the inaugural David & Marilyn Kirk Teacher Fellow for the ISP. “How are we going to bust those misconceptions if we don’t teach it?”

After speaking on campus for the Assembly Series (see sidebar), Carroll will play a key role in this year’s Darwin Day events. At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, he will make an informal presentation for teachers and high school students titled “Evo Devo and an Expanding Evolutionary Synthesis.”

Evo devo, a relatively new branch of evolutionary biology, deals with two complementary issues: First, how developmental processes have evolved over time in different lineages of animals and plants, and second, the role that such changes in embryonic development have played in producing the phenotypic variation that has been acted upon by natural selection.

On Saturday, Feb. 8, Carroll will deliver the keynote of a half-day event for K-12 science teachers titled “Science Education and Storytelling: The Making of a Theory.” Carroll will discuss ways teachers can help students appreciate and understand the history of life — and what is known and how it is known.

Carroll, who is well known for producing films for the HHMI, also will discuss how film is one potentially powerful medium for bringing the excitement of scientific discovery into the classroom and for illustrating the scientific process.

“Among other things during the workshop, teachers will be introduced to an incredible array of teaching aids, visual aids, videos, books, charts, posters and so forth that simplify the teaching of evolutionary concepts at every level,” Kirk said. “This is particularly timely because the new National Science Standards have a much stronger emphasis on evolutionary biology than the older ones did.”

The ISP’s commitment to evolution education won’t end after Darwin Day, as workshops and lectures will continue throughout the year. Kirk and Petersen also host a monthly Darwin Book Club, open to any area teachers, that explore evolutionary concepts and offer a discussion of resources for evolution education in the K-12 classroom. For the spring 2014 semester, the group is reading Stephen R. Palumbi’s “The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change.”

“Particularly at the elementary level, teachers are in many cases baffled about how to go about introducing students to evolutionary concepts, but there are lots of materials to help them do that, and so we’re trying to develop both the motivation and to bring teachers into contact with materials they can use to do so,” Kirk said.

“I totally applaud Washington University for taking the initiative in evolution education,” Petersen said. “Evolution is the foundational concept that helps everything make sense.”

To learn more and register for the events of ISP’s Darwin Day or find out more about the Darwin Book Club, visit here.