Like many librarians, I look forward to seeing updates in the annual Banned Books Week list. I wonder what titles I’ll see in my branch library display. I enjoy hearing how fellow school librarians are observing the occasion, and I look for current releases that have made the list. I always look for titles that specifically connect to science education.
I was not at all surprised to discover that the most commonly banned science book is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859 and banned in 1895 for contradicting Christian beliefs. Darwin’s publication has been called “the most influential banned book.” On the Origin of Species lays the groundwork for modern evolutionary biology. Very little about science is understandable without a basic knowledge of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
As a former secondary science teacher, I know the importance of accurately teaching evolution as well as encouraging students to learn more about Darwin’s theory. It’s doubly important today as science naysayers spread misinformation that influence public and political decision making. Genetics, population biology, and even epidemiology, especially the study of pathogens that evolve rapidly like the COVID-19 virus, all depend on an understanding of evolution. According to a 2011 article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, knowledge of the fundamental basics of evolutionary biology is necessary to the understanding of disease and public health.
I think Charles Darwin would agree. Darwin studied hundreds of plants and animals as he traveled around the world on the British ship H.M.S. Beagle in 1831. He observed that no two individuals in a population are exactly alike, and he recognized how favorable inherited variations influence the success of a species. A majority of Darwin’s observations were made during his visit to the Galápagos Islands, and today the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island helps conserve this laboratory of life.
Evidence of evolution can be found in fossils, traces of former living things. The long history of life on Earth is commonly found in sedimentary rock, stacked layer upon layer, like chapters of a book. Because of fossils, we know how living things have changed over time.
As an elementary librarian, I cannot ignore my science-teaching roots, and I frequently include science lessons in the library. My goal is to plant the seeds for science interest and ensure my curious students avoid acquiring lingering misconceptions about challenging science topics. As a result, I’d like to encourage librarians to introduce the topic of evolution in the elementary library.
So, how can you get started?
- Like Darwin, your young students may be captivated by the variety of life in the Galápagos Islands. Visit the islands in a virtual tour like these from Nat Geo and Google Arts & Culture. Invite students to create a postcard or digital slideshow of their visit. Allow time for students to share their reactions to the strange and wonderful animals and plants that inhabit the islands.
- Share a display of fossils. If you are near a college, contact their science department and ask if they have a few sturdy fossils they are willing to share. A virtual visit with a scientist might work as well. Put together a photo display of fossils for students to identify to create interest. Elementary students are usually quite excited by dinosaurs, and models from the dollar store can be available for students to examine and play with after a read aloud in the library.
- Make fossils in the library. This can be done very simply with PlayDoh and plastic animal models, but we really enjoyed using this recipe for long-lasting salt-dough fossils. You’ll need to leave these fossils in a low-temperature (200⁰) oven for a few hours. Your cafeteria might be willing to bake them or, if your school has a science lab, there may be an oven you can use. Send the fossils home with students the next day.
- Inspire future biologists with these picture books about evolution:
I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan. This whimsical story is a light introduction to the topic of evolution. Students will enjoy the simple illustrations, and the story offers an opportunity to partner with science teachers to explore the topic more in depth.
Island: A Story of the Galápagos by Jason Chin. This beautiful picture book has something for every budding scientist: volcanoes, lizards, sharks, snails and more. The epilogue introduces Darwin and his revolutionary theory in an easy-to-understand manner.
Galápagos George by Jean Craighead George tells the tale of a giant tortoise, the last of his species, who lived to be 100 years old. A timeline and helpful websites are included in the book. Pair this read aloud with Nat Geo’s photograph of Lonesome George to bring the story to life.
Moth by Isabel Thomas. This engaging picture book explains how adaptations affect natural selection using a real-life example, the peppered moth. During the industrialization of 1950s Great Britain, peppered moths with darker scales were more likely to survive predation by birds on trees darkened by coal soot compared to paler ones. Pair this reading with a simulation of peppered moth evolution, such as the one described here from Arizona State University.
An understanding of evolution is more important than ever in creating a foundation of science education. Librarians can begin with elementary students to introduce the enormous impact that Charles Darwin has had on our lives.
Kellyanne Burbage lives in Charleston, SC, and recently retired after 27 years in education which included teaching science and serving as an elementary librarian. Kelly’s interests include connecting students to science through children’s literature and by promoting science careers. In her spare time, Kelly enjoys sharing current NASA events as a volunteer Solar System Ambassador. She is a NatGeo certified educator and frequently writes about science education and intellectual freedom in her local newspaper.