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7 Tips for Tackling Controversial Science Topics

7 Tips for Tackling Controversial Science Topics

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Updated on Jan 4, 2013

Picture this: your kid's in science class, and a heated debate sparks over the legitimacy of global warming. Will your child speak up, or shrink down to avoid the controversial spotlight?

Earlier this year Senate Bill 893, dubbed the "monkey bill" by critics, became law in Tennessee. Named for the historic trial of biology teacher John Scopes, the bill is designed to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories," including cloning, biological evolution, and global warming.

The bill's proponents say it's just a way to help students be critical of all information, while opponents (including The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Biology Teachers) have called it a backhanded effort to preach contentious theories like creationism to students.

Regardless of your personal stance, this bill represents a larger issue that you're bound to face as a parent: helping your kids navigate controversial science subjects. From debates about global warming to creationism vs. evolution, science class today can be less about facts, and more about which opinion is the "right" one. As a parent, how can your be sure your kid comes out with what's important: an education? Use the tips below to help your child successfully navigate sticky subjects in the classroom:

  • Talk to the teacher. Be sure your kid's educator isn't interested in pushing a personal agenda during class. It's a teacher's duty to present different theories at school, but if she's simply touting her privately held views, that's a problem. Get class details from your child: is her teacher covering the theories of evolution and intelligent design in a nonpartisan way? If you suspect the teacher's more interested in preaching than teaching, talk to a guidance counselor about switching to a less biased class.
  • Stay in the know. What happens in high school can set the stage for your kid later in life, so pay close attention to curriculum. According to a 2009 study published in BioScience, students exposed to creationism in high school biology were more likely to accept creationist views as college students, while students taught only the theory of evolution were more likely to accept it at the college level. Learn what the state standards are for science at every grade level, and compare that to your child's work. Don't hesitate to reach out to your local school board if you have questions or concerns.
  • Supplement school. Instead of the standard superhero saga, use your next family movie night to watch and discuss a documentary on a controversial scientific issue. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or sci-fi thriller Gattaca are great picks to spark debate. If you're nervous about age appropriate content, be sure to read reviews and check ratings in advance. After the flick ends, chat with your child about the issues raised in the film, such as global warming or genetic modification. How does she think these topics might play out in class?
  • Explore different viewpoints. Offer a variety of information sources at home to provide multiple viewpoints on the same issue. Read an article about the same topic from three different newspapers; this will show your child how information can be twisted to fit a particular viewpoint or agenda. Challenge her to figure out why one source might emphasize certain aspects over others, and ask her how she'd frame the facts if she were a reporter.
  • Practice tolerance. Even in high school, your teen looks up to you, so be a role model of tolerance. Remind her to be respectful when she's presented with views that differ from her own. If you're not sure where to start, try pointing to a difference that exists between you and your spouse that you've both handled with maturity and respect. For example, say, "Your dad grew up celebrating Hanukkah, while I celebrated Christmas. We've incorporated elements of both into our holiday season, and our family is stronger because of it."
  • Dinner debates. Prep your child for classroom discussions of difficult concepts by bringing the debate to the dinner table. Start with silly subjects she'll enjoy (such as which pasta is best for spaghetti, whether potatoes should be served mashed or baked) to get her comfortable with the process. Subjective topics that don't have a clear "right or wrong" answer allows her to see that some debates aren't black and white, and helps her respect multiple perspectives.
  • Back up. Encourage your child to speak her mind in conversation and support her assertions with facts. Once she's used to providing evidence for her thoughts at home, she'll be more likely to do so in the classroom. "I think it's important for parents to explain to their children that is OK to have an opinion," explains Tennessee science teacher Sharon Lawhorn. "I encourage my high school students to ponder quite often, but I also encourage them to be prepared to support their statements with relevant and reliable resources with regards to controversial topics such as stem cell research or evolutionary theory."

Since you can't be there to guide her through difficult classroom discussions, do the next best thing and prepare your child for controversial science subjects with the tips above. The next time her teacher introduces a topic like evolution, genetic modification, or cloning, you can rest easy knowing your kid's prepared for an intelligent, articulate discussion, and that she's ready to do what's most important: learn!

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