David Kirk

Evolution should be an important part of a sound K-12 science curriculum

For much of his career, Washington University biology professor David Kirk, PhD, focused his research on the spherical, multicellular green alga, Volvox carteri. Kirk, in collaboration with his late wife Marilyn M. Kirk, their students, and other fellow scientists had initially focused on the process by which an adult Volvox with a division of labor between two entirely different cell types develops from a single cell. Initially, the program of gene activity that they discovered was required to achieve normal development of the Volvox adult did not make much sense to them—until they came to view it in terms of how Volvox had evolved from a unicellular ancestor. Now it seems clear that the program of gene activity required to form a normal Volvox adult is actually the program of gene activity that was added to the ancestral genome over the ages to evolve multicellular Volvox from its simple one-cell ancestor.

Kirk’s work in this burgeoning field of evolutionary developmental biology— or“Evo-Devo”, as it is now known— cemented his belief that evolution should be an important part of a sound K-12 science curriculum. “I believe our growing knowledge requires an evolutionary context in order for the biology of modern organisms to make sense to students,” says Kirk.

Now, as a faculty fellow of the Institute for School Partnership (ISP), Kirk has focused his efforts on improving the way evolution is taught in middle school. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of resistance on the part of parents and school administrators to teaching evolution in their schools,” says Kirk. “But as a scientist, I don’t think it makes any more sense to try to teach biology without evolution, than it would make to try to teach chemistry without atomic theory, or physics without the theory of gravity.”

“However, many studies have shown that even teachers who accept evolution often avoid incorporating it in their course work, for fear of sparking the ire of parents. And all too often, those teachers who do introduce the concept of evolution, tend to cover it in a single session or two at the end of a course—like an afterthought,” says Kirk. One current effort to motivate teachers to increase their coverage of evolution is the ISP-sponsored Darwin Book Club. Comprised of primarily middle and high school teachers from throughout the St. Louis area, Kirk and ISP Teacher Fellow Elizabeth Peterson lead discussion on books and resources for evolution education in the K-12 classroom. A recent book club selection was Sean B. Carroll’s Into the Jungle: Great Adventures in the Search for Evolution.

Kirk’s interest in advancing K-12 science education is not limited to evolution. He has been involved with Science Outreach—now the Institute for School Partnership—for many years. Kirk led the revision of the Science Outreach “hands-on” Modern Genetics program that is now used in many local high schools, and he also served as principal investigator for an NIH grant that funded development of middle-school inquiry-based learning materials in collaboration with the Saint Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden. “This is a crucial age at which to engage budding scientists. If we don’t capture their interest and enthusiasm in middle school—we’ve potentially lost them for keeps.”

Kirk’s passion for science education and the work of the Institute for School Partnership may be best illustrated by an endowment that he and his late wife, Marilyn M. Kirk, established to support the work of Science Outreach (now ISP), particularly at the middle school level. Specifics of how the income from the endowment is to be used are left to the discretion of the Executive Director of the ISP, Victoria May. But as of this year it is being used to fund fellowships for middle school teachers who are committed to improving science education at that level. “I am pleased to say that the first David L. and Marilyn M. Kirk Teacher Fellow is Elizabeth Peterson—my co-leader of the Darwin Book Club and science teacher at Ladue Middle School,” says Kirk.

David Kirk is Professor Emeritus in the WUSTL Department of Biology. He is internationally known for his research on Volvox carteri development and evolution, and has co-authored numerous scientific publications on those topics and has authored a book on Volvox for Cambridge University Press.