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Bones, Stones, and Genes
By Nicole Kresge
The 2011 Holiday Lectures series delves into where we came from and how we got here.
Teaching human evolution is not always straightforward, even when you have an advanced degree in the subject. Take biology teacher Keri Shingleton. She has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and teaches biology courses that cover human evolution at Holland Hall, a private Episcopal-affiliated grade school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yet even she has shied away from the topic, admitting, “Perhaps I had a bit of a misconception that there were still too many unknowns.”
Although Tulsa is a very conservative city, the administrators at Holland Hall stand by Shingleton’s decision to teach human evolution. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t have students in my classroom who are opposed to what we teach,” says Shingleton.
Shingleton is one of 14 teachers from around the U.S. who were invited to attend the 2011 HHMI Holiday Lectures on Science this past October. The teachers joined about 200 Washington, D.C., area students to learn answers to questions about human evolution such as: Where and when did humans arise? What distinguishes us from other species? Did our distant ancestors look and behave like us? More than10,000 other students and teachers watched a live webcast of the lectures, titled “Bones, Stones, and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans.”
“We chose to focus on the origin of modern humans this year because understanding where we come from and how we got here is one of the most fundamental questions that humans have asked for ages,” says Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI. “Due to local controversies about the teaching of evolution, many kids don’t get exposure to good information on the topic. We want to equip teachers with the best information available from leading figures in this quest.”
Recent advances in paleontology, archeology, and genetics prompted HHMI to invite three dynamic speakers from very different research fields to participate in this annual series that aims to bring the latest scientific developments into the classroom.
Tim D. White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, took the audience through time, describing fossil evidence for human evolution from Africa to Europe and explaining how the great apes fit in the tree of life.
Illustration: Sasha Prood