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Evolution Education: The Power of a Role Model

Religion and evolution can be touchy subjects and we are often having to be careful about the assertions we make about the two. People may struggle to reconcile the two and this is the problem Kenny Harrington (Bio ‘24) tackled in his CURA research. Harrington took first place at the Fall 2023 College Undergraduate Research Awards (CURAs). His research explored how students increase their acceptance of the theory of evolution based on their scientific reasoning skills.

Harrington hypothesized that students with stronger scientific reasoning capabilities would find that having a better understanding of the theory would be the main factor for increasing their acceptance of evolution, and students with lower scientific reasoning skills would find that having a role model present would be the main factor for increasing their acceptance of evolution. In context of the research, a role model is a scientist who accepts evolution and is also religious. When evolution was taught by a role model, the students felt they could trust them because their religious beliefs were similar.

For the study, Harrington gathered a group of students from the Bio 100 class and measured their scientific reasoning abilities. According to Harrington, scientific reasoning was gauged with a 24-question survey called the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning (LCTSR). It's a standardized survey that has been used in countless studies that also measure scientific reasoning abilities. The 24 questions are a series of puzzle-like questions that test student's understanding of things like probability, independent v. dependent variables, correlation v causation, proportions, conservation of mass and energy, hypothesis testing, and experimental design.

Kenny Harrington (CURA Bio 1st Place) stands to the left of another CURA competitor. He's wearing a blue collared button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He wears a CURA name tag around his neck.
Kenny Harrington competed in the 2023 Fall CURA competition, taking first place for his research in evolution education.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

The students then learned about evolution and Harrington measured how much their acceptance increased. “The strategies used to increase student's acceptance of evolution were many, including discussing the history of the Church of Jesus Christ and why there might be discomfort with the theory of evolution, discussing the doctrine of the church and how it can be compatible with evolution, discussing how science is done, including what a theory is and what questions science can and cannot answer, discussing the evidences for and mechanisms of evolution, and finally, introducing a role model during the evolution unit,” said Harrington. “While many strategies were used, we only compared two of these during the study: the last two (evidences for evolution and how evolution works, and role models).”

If their acceptance went up, the students were asked why it increased and what happened in the classroom to change their views. “We [asked these questions] because we used a few different strategies to increase [the students’] acceptance,” Harrington said. “We then compared their responses to these different strategies to see if there were any differences between students with higher reasoning abilities versus lower reasoning abilities.”

The result was surprising. Harrington and his team discovered scientific reasoning skills did not predict whether students thought that understanding the mechanisms of evolution or presence of a role model was most influential in their acceptance of evolution. Instead, the data showed that most students -- regardless of their scientific reasoning skills -- chose role model as the most influential factor. “There seemed to be one strategy overall that contributed the most to their acceptance, and that was the presence of a role model in the classroom,” Harrington said.

Kenny Harrington presents his CURA poster to a group of audience members.
Harrington's research of evolution education found that being taught be a role model plays a big part in students acceptance of evolution theories.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

Though he was surprised by the results, Harrington was excited to have explored a research topic he was curious about. The idea for studying evolution education came from a former lab member who had explored a similar topic for his PhD defense. “At the end of his presentation, I asked him the question that eventually evolved into my research question,” Harrington said. “He didn’t know what to tell me because, obviously, the research hadn’t been done, and all the professors didn’t really know either—so I turned it into my own research project.”

Harrington is finished studying this topic, and he’s excited for what his future holds. After graduating, he plans to go to medical school. When he’s not in school or the lab, Harrington enjoys playing tennis, eating tacos, and reading books, especially those by Brandon Sanderson.