Fla. Museum study finds gaps in visitors’ understanding of evolution

March 26th, 2007

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — At a time when the public is divided over the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design, a nationwide Florida Museum of Natural History study concludes that museums have the potential to make a significant impact on the public’s understanding of evolution.

The study surveyed more than 366 natural history museum visitors in California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, New York and Washington D.C., and discovered that only 31 percent could accurately explain natural selection — an essential component of evolution — and that most visitors have an incomplete understanding of other key evolution concepts.

Florida Museum vertebrate paleontology curator and study co-author Bruce MacFadden will present findings from the study at the 56th annual meeting of the Southeastern Section of the Geological Society of America on March 29-30 at the Hyatt Regency in Savannah, Ga.

MacFadden said museums should be better communicators of evolution and its processes.

“Museums display the evidence of evolution,” he said. “We have more than 28 million specimens and artifacts at the Florida Museum, and when we exhibit fossils, for example, it gives us an opportunity to better educate the public about evolution.”

Ten percent of visitors explicitly rejected evolution, which is less than the national average of about 35 percent. The study also found that 78 percent of visitors were able to place major geological events — such as the origins of life on earth, fish and land plants — in chronological order, but far fewer had a grasp of the magnitude of time over which these events occurred.

Betty Dunckel, director of the Florida Museum’s Center for Informal Science Education, was the principal investigator. Additional Florida Museum co-authors include Shari Ellis and Janice Chang.

A second Florida Museum study by Larisa Grawe DeSantis developed a teaching module for grades 6-12 designed to build evolutionary understanding based on relevant geological, physical and life sciences. DeSantis, a zoology Ph.D. student advised by MacFadden, also will present her findings at the conference, which is expected to draw about 750 scientists.

Contact: Paul Ramey, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu
Writer: DeLene Beeland