"Lab reports? Anybody have lab reports?" Mark Terry calls out softly, shaking a small cardboard box at the 10th grade Biology students as they wander in to class. Mark is dressed in a plaid shirt and well-worn jeans that would not be out of place on a dude ranch. But minutes later, when a student asks how blood type could possibly be involved in natural selection, Mark shows how well versed he is in the latest science by referring to recent study on the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
A scientist, an environmentalist, a writer and an accomplished musician, Mark is the quintessential Renaissance man. When the school's jazz band needed a drummer to fill in at their Artsfest concert, Mark reached for his drumsticks. When he saw how a "research" institute in Seattle was trying to undermine the teaching of evolution in the nation's public schools, Mark didn't just gripe about it; he became a leading figure in the national debate and began writing and speaking to science and education conferences around the country. Last December, he published an article in the Phi Delta Kappan that challenged the anti-evolution position of the Discovery Institute, and KING-TV recently interviewed him and filmed his class for a story.
Mark is one of The Northwest School's three founders. If Paul Raymond is the founder with the deep knowledge of the humanities, and Ellen Taussig has given the school its roots in the arts, Mark is the one who built up a cutting-edge science curriculum. "We have a commitment to critical thinking," says Mark. "We make the students ask better questions."
Because The Northwest School's approach to teaching evolution by combining the humanities and science programs is unique, Mark was invited to be the keynote speaker at a University of California, Berkeley conference on the teaching of evolution several years ago. Since then, he has found himself on a speaker's circuit talking about the program.
"It's revolutionary, how we teach it here. People tell me they wish they could do what we do at Northwest." Mark says. Students are shown how support for Darwin's theory was initially weak, in part, because there was no evidence of how new adaptive traits could be inherited. "Then we teach them genetics, and you have this 'aha!' The students then look at how the idea of evolution generated dangerous social movements such as eugenics. "The students get a multi-dimensional view of evolution. They learn the history of an idea."
Mark grew up in a small cabin on the shores of Lake Washington on Mercer Island, collecting lizards, frogs and bugs. He also played the piano and drums and at one point considered a career as a professional musician. But ultimately, the desire to teach won out.
Mark met Paul Raymond at Pomona College, where Paul had come to recruit students to help with a special program to teach inner city kids in 1967. Mark worked with Paul on that program for three summers, helping to teach everything from ecology to Chinese history. He later transferred to the University of Washington where he discovered his passion for paleontology. His senior paper explored how environmental issues could be brought into a classroom. He was attending a conference on ecology in 1969, when he stood up in the audience and told the experts that the environment "is being taught all wrong." He received a standing ovation.
David Brower, who had just founded Friends of the Earth, was impressed enough by Mark to invite him to address a major environmental conference in Aspen, Colorado a few months later. Mark's ideas about teaching and the environment became the basis for his book, Teaching for Survival, a seminal work in the field published while he was still a graduate student at Cornell University.
Mark had a chance to put those ideas into action when he joined Ellen and Paul to found The Northwest School. He believed, for example, that students put to work to improve their environment would take better care of it. He helped to start the environment program at the school with the idea that the faculty and staff would maintain the old school building. The program has had a deep impact on students. "You come to The Northwest School, and before you know it someone has put a broom in your hand. That has a magic of its own," said Mark. "The students embrace the building. It gives them a sense of being centered."
Mark's greatest passion, however, is teaching the sciences. And the students respond with a passion of their own. Although students are not required to take science in their senior year, 95% of them choose to do so.
This fall, Mark and his wife Catherine, the school's Registrar, will take a well-deserved sabbatical. They'll camp in the southwest, and Mark plans to speak at several conferences on the current challenges to the teaching of evolution in America's public schools.
-- NWS News Magazine, Spring 2005