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Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, is an international celebration coined Darwin Day. During the week of his birthday, universities, museums, and science-oriented organizations worldwide host events that celebrate Darwin’s scientific achievements in evolutionary biology. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) has one of the longest running celebrations in the nation, with 2016 marking the 19th year. For 2016, the theme for our weeklong series of events was paleontology, chosen to celebrate new research in the field and to highlight the specific misconceptions of evolution within the context of geologic time. We provide insight into the workings of one of our largest and most successful Darwin Day celebration to date, so that other institutions might also be able to host their own rewarding Darwin Day events in the future.
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
DOI 10.1186/s12052-017-0073-3
Darwin Day indeep time: promoting
evolutionary science throughpaleontology
Sarah L. Sheffield1,2* and Jennifer E. Bauer2
Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, is an international celebration coined Darwin Day. During the week of his
birthday, universities, museums, and science-oriented organizations worldwide host events that celebrate Darwin’s
scientific achievements in evolutionary biology. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) has one of the longest
running celebrations in the nation, with 2016 marking the 19th year. For 2016, the theme for our weeklong series of
events was paleontology, chosen to celebrate new research in the field and to highlight the specific misconceptions
of evolution within the context of geologic time. We provide insight into the workings of one of our largest and most
successful Darwin Day celebration to date, so that other institutions might also be able to host their own rewarding
Darwin Day events in the future.
Keywords: Charles Darwin, Paleontology, Tennessee, Community, Evolutionary biology, Fossils
© The Author(s) 2017. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
(, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license,
and indicate if changes were made.
February 12th is an annual international celebration of
the life and work of Charles Darwin, collectively termed
“Darwin Day”. ese global events have similar objec-
tives: to educate and excite the public about evolutionary
science. Although Darwin’s work is most often discussed
in terms of its incredible impact on evolutionary biol-
ogy, his explanation of evolution by natural selection has
strong implications across an array of scientific fields,
including geology and paleontology.
Darwin Day at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
(UT) is one of the longest running annual celebrations of
Charles Darwin’s scientific advances; 2016 was the 19th
year this event has been running in eastern Tennessee. All
of the events are free and open, both to the UT commu-
nity and the public. Darwin Day UT is primarily organized
by graduate and undergraduate student volunteers, all of
whom are invested in promoting evolution education. In
2016, we hosted a weeklong series of events focused on a
central theme of paleontology, involving a lecture series,
birthday party, Teachers workshop, art contests, and more.
Our keynote lecture, at the culmination of the weeklong
event, was given by Dr. Neil Shubin, paleontologist and
author of popular science book Your Inner Fish, was
attended by over 600 university and community members.
Celebrating Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural
selection is particularly important in the United States,
where a nearly one-third of the adult population does not
accept the evidence for evolution (Miller etal. 2006). e
United States has one of the highest percentages of adults
who do not accept evolution, compared with 33 developed
nations (Miller etal. 2006). Misconceptions have led to a
number of proposed laws to undermine the teaching of
evolution. Several states (e.g., Tennessee, Louisiana, Mis-
sissippi, and Kansas; Matzke 2016) have passed what are
referred to as ‘stealth creationist’ legislation that promotes
teaching alternative concepts, such as Intelligent Design,
alongside evolution (Scott and Matzke 2007;Matzke 2016)
or promotes teaching nonscientific ‘holes’ in well-estab-
lished scientific principles. Tennessee in particular, the
state in which the famous Scopes Trial took place nearly
a century ago, has recently passed laws that allow for the
teaching of nonscientific concepts in public school class-
rooms. It is important that this misinformation is met with
thoughtful conversation and rationale, which is one of the
overarching goals of the Darwin Day UT program.
As evolutionary theory is not just contentious with the
public in the southern United States, but across the globe
Open Access
1 School of Geosciences, The University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler
Ave, NES 107, Tampa, FL 33620, USA
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
(Miller etal. 2006), it is important for scientists to reach
out and engage the community to help them understand
science. Darwin Day is a highly effective method to reach
out to the community; our goal herein is to provide a
detailed account of our 2016 programs in the hope that
others will be able to utilize our ideas in starting or con-
tinuing their own Darwin Day celebrations.
History ofDarwin Day atUT
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, former assistant professor in e
University of Tennessee’s Department of Ecology and Evo-
lutionary Biology (EEB), founded Darwin Day UT in 1997.
Since then, the celebration has been organized and executed
by graduate and undergraduate students within numerous
science departments across the university. e event first
started with an information booth, a film series shown at
the library, and a keynote address. Since then, the event has
grown larger each year; for the past few years, Darwin Day
UT has become a week-long event that has involved mul-
tiple speakers, a multi-day information booth, a teachers
workshop, an all-ages birthday party for Darwin, and more,
all largely focused on a central theme (refer to Table1 and
Goodman (2008) for earlier Darwin Day UT events).
History ofcontention inTennessee
e banning of teaching evolution in public school class-
rooms is considered to be one of the first steps in the
anti-evolution movement (Moran 2002; Matzke 2010).
is movement gained speed in the early 1920s when
William Jennings Bryan began a nationwide cause to ban
the teaching of evolutionary principles in high school
classrooms. He succeeded in many states, including Ten-
nessee. A teacher, John Scopes, from Dayton, Tennessee
volunteered to act as the defendant in what would later
be called the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 (Matzke
2010). For nearly four decades after the event, the law
remained in place prohibiting the teaching of evolution
(Goodman 2008; Matzke 2010).
Even after the ban was lifted, however, significant mis-
trust of evolutionary theory held in residents of Ten-
nessee and still exists today. In 2012, legislation (e.g.,
HB 368/SB 893) was enacted in Tennessee that allows
alternative concepts, none of which are based in test-
able science, to be taught alongside scientific theories,
such as evolution and climate change, in public school
classrooms. is law also allows for educators to present
what they consider to be weaknesses in these scientific
theories, regardless of whether or not these weaknesses
are rooted in valid scientific thought, in order to bolster
alternative unscientific concepts. Similar bills across the
United States have been ruled as unconstitutional (Wex-
ler 1997; Pennock 2003). Bills such as these will only fos-
ter misunderstandings of scientific principles, especially
within the field of evolutionary biology; the Darwin Day
organization works to combat these misunderstandings.
It is irresponsible to purposefully mislead students on
well-supported scientific theories and undermine their
understanding of the scientific method, the foundation
Table 1 Scientists thathave spoken atDarwin Day since2008 andtitles oftheir lectures from2009–2016
See Goodman (2008) for previous years’ lecture information. In 2009 and 2011, Dar win Day UT events did not include speakers
Year andtheme Guest speakers Talk titles
2016: paleontology Neil Shubin, Ph.D. Your Inner Fish: a journey into the 3.5 billion year history of the human body
Andrew Kramer, Ph.D. Anti-evolutionism and human paleontology: a conversation
Blaine Schubert, Ph.D. From rhinos to mastodonts: the gray fossil site of Tennessee
Stephanie Drumheller, Ph.D. Not just living fossils: crocodylian evolution and diversity from the age of dino-
saurs to the present
Sandy Kawano, Ph.D. Breathing life into fossils: living fishes and salamanders provide clues to the
evolutionary invasion of land
2015: biogeography Alan de Queiroz, Ph.D. A world shaped by astonishing events: darwin, creationism, and the geography
of life
Joseph Panzik, Ph.D. Earth: an evolving planet
A.C. Sandy Echternacht, Ph.D. Messing with mother nature: introduced species
Colin Sumrall, Ph.D. On the origin of birds: did the age of the dinosaurs ever end?
2014: Alfred Russell Wallace Andrew Berry, Ph.D. Darwin-Wallace Day?
Nicholas Matzke, Ph.D. The intelligent design debate
2013: communicating science Ezra Markowitz, Ph.D. Effective science communication
Camille Parmesan, Ph.D. Conservation in a time of rapid climate change
2012: no official theme Rosemary Gillespie, Ph.D. Inspiration from Islands for understanding evolution
Harry Greene, Ph.D. Natural history, aesthetics, and conservations
2010: history of evolutionary theory William E. Friedman, Ph.D. A Darwinian look at Darwin’s evolutionist ancestors
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
upon which all branches of science heavily rely (Scott and
Branch 2003). A scientifically literate public, especially in
evolutionary science is essential for maintaining and sup-
porting the growth of scientific discovery in this coun-
try, especially in medical, agricultural, and sustainability
research (Goodman 2008).
Darwin Day 2016: paleontology
For the past several years Darwin Day UT has incorpo-
rated an annual theme around which to focus our semi-
nar series; for 2016, the theme was paleontology. In order
to promote an inclusive environment, all of our events
(Table 2) were free and open to university faculty, staff,
and students, as well as the Knoxville community. To
further promote interaction with community members,
Darwin Day UT sponsored a wide variety of different
events, held at different times of the day. Our events were
advertised widely via social media (e.g., Twitter, Face-
book, Instagram), our website (http://www.darwindaytn.
org), newspaper ads, newspaper articles, televised news
excerpts, flyers posted in university classrooms and in
popular buildings within the city, and more.
Our theme of paleontology was chosen to combat the
specific misconceptions of evolution that exist in the con-
text of deep time. Commonly made arguments that there
are no transitional fossils and that there are no exam-
ples of macroevolution (see Mead 2009 for a thorough
discussion of common misconceptions of evolution and
the fossil record) show a significant misunderstanding
of evolution in geologic time. Paleontology is an excit-
ing subject that is relevant in many aspects of popular
culture; the goal of this theme was to bring in interested
members of the community and help to dispel these mis-
conceptions of evolution and paleontology, while intro-
ducing them to fascinating research within this particular
Information booth
Each year, Darwin Day UT sets up an information booth
along a highly populated stretch of campus with advertis-
ing for our events, merchandise, free informational hand-
outs, recent academic publications on the importance of
teaching evolutionary science in schools. e booth, set
up for multiple days, is staffed with several volunteers
(refer to Table2 for a list of volunteer duties and number
of volunteers needed for specific events) to answer ques-
tions. ese volunteers, comprising undergraduate and
graduate students, are trained to respond to all inquiries
with calm, nonjudgmental approaches; they receive infor-
mation on common misconceptions of evolution, ways
to explain evolutionary theory to people unfamiliar with
scientific concepts, and on common religious concerns
involving science. Volunteers were also given examples of
real experiences faced by previous volunteers at Darwin
Day UT (e.g., university students telling volunteers that
evolution is a religion, or that religion and evolution are
incompatible) with guidelines on how they were handled.
In this instance, volunteers would explain that evolution
is rooted in the scientific theory and rigorous hypoth-
esis testing; observations can be made about evolution
in the lab and in the field. Volunteers also would explain
that religion and science answer fundamentally differ-
ent questions using different methods; therefore, there
is no reason that they need to be incompatible. ese
questions and comments from university students have
often led to respectful discussions of the common mis-
conceptions of the evolutionary theory. Protestors from
a religious organization came to speak against evolu-
tion across the walkway from the information booth; the
organization, comprising three-four members on aver-
age, did not approach the information booth. Volunteers
used their presence as an opportunity to further stress to
questioning students that science and religion are fun-
damentally different, and that many misconceptions of
evolution are rooted within the misunderstanding that
evolution is a belief system.
In order to attract more community engagement, Dar-
win Day UT also uses larger than life puppets of Charles
Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (Fig. 1), created by
local artists in 2013. e puppet of Alfred Russel Wallace
is especially important for this event, as volunteers also
try to teach the history of evolutionary theory. While the
theory of evolution via natural selection is often attrib-
uted to Charles Darwin, many members of the public do
not know that he coauthored the first published report
with Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed his theory
independently of Darwin. e puppet of Wallace, there-
fore, serves as a useful teaching tool to educate people in
how the evolutionary theory was actually developed. e
puppets, worn by university students, are used for major
events in downtown Knoxville as well at our informa-
tion booth on campus. e large characterized puppets
provide an easy and fun icebreaker to discuss our pur-
pose for hosting Darwin Day UT, upcoming events, and
answer any questions surrounding evolution.
Keynote andacademic lectures
In 2016, Darwin Day UT hosted three evening lectures
and two lunchtime talks, culminating with the keynote
seminar on the last evening of the annual celebration.
Our goal in choosing speakers for our lectures was
to highlight some of the outstanding paleontological
research that is currently happening in Tennessee right
now, as well as to showcase a variety of paleontological
topics that would interest a wide range of people, from
university students to community members. Lecture
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
Table 2 All events hosted duringDarwin Day 2016, withdates, times, andlocations
The number of volunteers required for each event, along with their specic duties, is also listed
Date, location, andtime Event Volunteers present
Friday, February 5th, 2016: Downtown Knoxville, 5–7 p.m. First Friday event (public community event): walk with puppets
and pass out flyers for Darwin Day Five total; distributing flyers (1), wear puppets (2), monitor puppet
stability (2)
Tuesday, February 9th, 2016: UT campus, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Information booth to answer questions about evolution, sell
merchandise, promote events Five total; distribute flyers, answer questions, sell merchandise,
monitor puppet stability (3), wear puppets (2)
Tuesday, February 9th, 2016: UT campus, 7–8 p.m. Lecture by Dr. Stephanie Drumheller Three total; introduce speaker (1), sell merchandise (2)
Wednesday, February 10th, 2016: UT campus, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Information booth to answer questions about evolution, sell
merchandise, promote events Five total; distribute flyers, answer questions, sell merchandise,
monitor puppet stability (3), wear puppets (2)
Wednesday, February 10th, 2016: UT campus, 11:30 a.m.–
12:30 p.m. Lunchtime lecture by Dr. Sandy Kawano One total; introduce speaker
Wednesday, February 10th, 2016: UT campus, 7–8 p.m. Lecture by Dr. Blaine Schubert Three total; introduce speaker (1), sell merchandise (2)
Thursday, February 11th, 2016: UT campus, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Information booth to answer questions about evolution, sell
merchandise, promote events Five total; distribute flyers, answer questions, sell merchandise,
monitor puppet stability (3), wear puppets (2)
Thursday, February 11th, 2016: UT campus, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Lunchtime lecture by Dr. Andy Kramer One total; introduce speaker
Thursday, February 11th, 2016: UT campus, 7 p.m.–9 p.m. Lecture by Dr. Neil Shubin and book signing Three total; introduce speaker (1), sell merchandise (2)
Friday, February 12th, 2016: UT Campus, McClung Museum of
Natural History, 4–6 p.m. Birthday party for Charles Darwin Five total; wear puppets (2), supervise party games and sell
merchandise (3)
Saturday, February 13th, 2016: UT Campus, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Teachers workshop Five total; lead discussions and breakout sessions
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
topics ranged from paleoanthropology, biomechanics
of early terrestrial vertebrates, crocodylian paleontol-
ogy, recent fossil site discovery in Tennessee, and the
expeditions to find famous transitional fossil Tiktaalik
roseae. These lectures served to show how inextrica-
bly rooted paleontology is within evolutionary science,
and to address the most common misconceptions of
evolution that occurs within the scope of geological
Our intention was to draw a large crowd for 2016’s key-
note event by bringing in a well-known speaker, Dr. Neil
Shubin, bestselling author and star of the PBS series Your
Inner Fish. To achieve this goal, we successfully applied
to multiple small grant agencies within and outside of
e University of Tennessee, Knoxville (these agencies
are listed in the acknowledgements). During his key-
note lecture, he took our audience through his relentless
journey to find the geological outcrops that he rightfully
suspected would supply one of the greatest transitional
fossils ever discovered, Tiktaalik roseae, a fossil that lead
to a greater understanding of tetrapod transition from
water to land (Daeschler etal. 2006). e evening key-
note lecture was attended by over 600 people from the
eastern Tennessee community, including: numerous K-12
school students, local teachers, community members,
and even a few protesters.
Birthday party
Together with the McClung Museum of Natural History
and Culture in Knoxville, TN, we hosted a birthday party
in honor of Charles Darwin. As a large aspect of Darwin
Day is to promote community involvement, the museum
is an excellent venue to excite students of all ages. e
museum provided guided tours through the museum
exhibitions, which the geology and paleontology of Ten-
nessee, as well as hosted science-themed party games
(e.g., pin the tooth on the T. rex and science scavenger
hunts utilizing information from museum displays) and a
birthday cake for Charles Darwin. e birthday party was
attended primarily by interested community members
that were not affiliated with the university (preschool
and elementary age children, from homeschool, private,
and public school backgrounds, along with a number of
adults from within the Knoxville community).
Teachers workshop
Darwin Day annually hosts a teachers workshop, aimed
at encouraging local educators to combat misinformation
surrounding the teaching of evolution here in Tennessee.
At the end of the fall semester, we mailed out upwards
of 200 letters to schools in Knox County and six of the
immediate surrounding counties, with information per-
taining to our free teachers workshop as well as grade
level contests for students to participate (see contest sec-
tion below).
e teachers workshop was a 5-h event on a Saturday,
for which they were able to receive professional develop-
ment credit. Fifteen teachers, ranging from K-12, from
both public and private schools, participated in the work-
shop. We started with an icebreaker to discuss common
difficulties that teachers had previously encountered
with student comments or confusion surrounding evo-
lutionary topics. Both the teachers and workshop leaders
worked to come up with solutions to common problems
(e.g., students feeling that evolution was against their reli-
gious beliefs or parent opposition to teaching evolution-
ary science) that would work to diffuse students’ unease
with the subject material and help them to understand
it better, while helping the instructor remain in control
of the classroom. A number of previous encounters, for
example, centered on student misunderstanding of the
definition of a scientific theory versus a law or hypoth-
esis; workshop leaders and teachers discussed the impor-
tance of a deep, thorough understanding of the scientific
method to help students understand how scientific theo-
ries come into existence. Teachers and leaders also dis-
cussed how to help students understand the differences
between testable scientific hypotheses and untestable
ideas, to further separate the distinctions between sci-
ence and religion.
Fig. 1 Puppets of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, created
by local Knoxville artists, are used on campus and around the city to
provide a way to engage the community in discussing the mission of
Darwin Day and upcoming events
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
Dr. Alycia Stigall from Ohio University was our guest
speaker for the workshop. She has worked with K-12
teachers in Ohio to implement fossil based lesson plans
into the classroom. She gave a detailed lecture on her col-
laboration with K-12 teachers and we went through several
of the lesson plans she developed. Darwin Day UT also
modified and generated a large number of lesson plans that
focused on paleontology and evolution; after the lunch
break, teachers were separated into grade level blocks (by
elementary, middle, and high school) to examine and run
through individual lesson plans and discuss any issues they
could see arising with their class. Teachers left with access
to an online folder that contained all of the lesson plans, as
well as PDFs of posters, created by UT graduate students,
covering information pertinent to evolution and pale-
ontology such as: the age of the Earth, principles of fossil
preservation, and how fossils are preserved within the rock
record (Additional file1).
As our theme this year was paleontology, we assem-
bled 75 fossil kits (Fig. 2) to distribute to teachers. We
Fig. 2 An example of the exterior and interior of the fossil kit that was distributed to educators that attended the teachers workshop, as well as
home school groups in Knox County. The kits also included a booklet with short descriptions on the fossils that detailed information on how the
fossils lived, ate, and how they were identified
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
received a large donation of fossils from the Dry Dredg-
ers Association based in Cincinnati, Ohio, and were able
to augment this from our own surplus in the Depart-
ment of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UT. ese kits
included 17 commonly found fossils from North Amer-
ica, like brachiopods, bryozoans, shark teeth, and crinoid
stems. Prior to the event, we spent a significant amount
of time modifying lesson plans that were well suited to
our workshop. is included adding relevant Tennessee
State Standards to the start of each lesson and in some
cases, tailoring lesson plans (Additional file1) to fit spe-
cifically with our fossil kits. A group of student volun-
teers met for a few hours during the weeks leading up to
the event and, in groups of two, modified lesson plans as
a group to achieve this goal. Fossil kits that were not dis-
tributed during the workshop were given to our sponsor,
e National Institute for Mathematical and Biological
Synthesis (NIMBioS), and kept as a set in our department
to use when traveling to local schools and homeschool
Student contests
To gain community and young student participation,
Darwin Day UT annually hosts contests for elementary,
middle, and high school students, open to all public and
private school students across surrounding counties. e
objective of these contests is to involve young students in
evolutionary science and help in developing their curios-
ity and creativity. is past year, elementary school stu-
dents created a common ancestor of a tiger, an alligator,
and a shark. Middle and high school students were tasked
with creating a future descendant, from any organism of
their choosing. ey were to make note of the organism’s
original form and be creative in the evolution of the new
form. e winners’ art (Fig.3) was displayed on the pro-
jector while the audience was being seated in the audito-
rium and their names were announced at the start of Dr.
Neil Shubin’s lecture.
e budget for Darwin Day UT fluctuates annually,
depending on the types of events planned and the
speaker fees. e budget typically ranges from $2500 to
$13,000 and is broken into these categories: speaker fees
(including lodging and travel for the speaker), university
room rentals for the events, refreshments for lunchtime
events, teachers workshop (for printed materials, bind-
ers, and refreshments, primarily), merchandise, and
advertising. e bulk of fundraising is done through
donations from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
departments; Darwin Day UT representatives mail letters
Fig. 3 The winner of the elementary school art contest drew what she imagined to be the common ancestor of a tiger, an alligator, and a shark.
Identifying information of the student, including her school name, is redacted. The contest flyers had a disclaimer that Darwin Day UT was allowed
to reproduce the winner’s artwork. This artwork was displayed at the keynote lecture before Dr. Shubin began speaking
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
to all department heads (see Additional file2) on campus
at the beginning of each academic year, asking for small
sums of money (typically $50–$300). When speaking
fees are low (~$500), the annual budget can be largely
sustained through these donations. In years where the
budget was larger (e.g., 2016’s budget was approximately
$13,000, where approximately~$11,000 was earmarked
for the keynote lecture), we sought funding from alter-
nate sources. We contacted local geology and paleon-
tology clubs for small donations of both money and
materials for fossil kits and we also applied for small out-
reach grants through various professional societies (e.g.,
e Paleontological Society, e Society for the Study
of Evolution) and internal grants through UT Knoxville
reserved for student groups (see “Acknowledgements”
section). Additionally, we sold merchandise (bumper
stickers, baseball caps, and t-shirts) at all of the events
to raise money for the next year’s Darwin Day; merchan-
dise, on average, brought in between $500 and $700 in
profit per year.
We advertised the events by contacting local radio and
television stations for interviews with the Darwin Day
UT coordinators. We invited local news stations to cover
the events in person and the news crew interviewed
some of the speakers. Darwin Day UT coordinators and
speakers also spoke to the campus radio station to pro-
mote the event and explain why we felt that our mes-
sage was so important to share. Further, we reached out
to newspapers within the area; many newspapers wrote
articles about the event beforehand, focused on the his-
tory of the event in Tennessee and upcoming events in
2016. Volunteers created quarter page ads for the cam-
pus newspapers; these ads were printed the week of the
event. Flyers for the talks and birthday party were dis-
tributed heavily across the university’s campus and to
numerous businesses, libraries, and public spaces across
the greater Knoxville area (examples can be found in
Additional file3).
Volunteers coordinated social media accounts via Face-
book and Twitter to post science factoids and updates
about the events on a regular basis (daily during the
month of February). Social media posts were highly effec-
tive, reaching a few 100 people on average with every
post. We also advertised our events for free on sites such
as, the international Darwin Day site, the
university’s events calendar, and Knoxville community
pages. Students were encouraged to go to the events via
their professors; Darwin Day UT representatives emailed
professors of science and science writing courses with the
event information and did classroom visits to promote
Darwin Day UT throughout the week of the events.
Our goal was to make evolutionary science accessi-
ble and enjoyable for as many students and community
members as possible. We invited speakers that we had
heavily researched beforehand, to ensure that the speak-
ers that came excelled in breaking down their specific
science well to general audiences. To ensure that our
events were further accessible to all, we hired American
Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for our evening events.
We advertised all Darwin Day UT events to the Tennes-
see School for the Deaf and the Knoxville Center of the
Deaf; while some students utilized these resources, better
effort to advertise the accessibility of our events should
be taken in the future (e.g., to nearby cities, etc.). e
ASL interpreters were given scientific words, such as Tik-
taalik and names of periods of the geologic time scale, in
advance in order to better interpret unfamiliar terms to
the audience.
e primary difficulties that Darwin Day UT experienced
during the course of the planned events were public mis-
conceptions of the definition of science. Darwin Day UT
planners received a small number of negative responses
via email to advertisements from various individuals.
e most common claim was the evolution was a reli-
gion, and it was inappropriate to share religious views
in public platforms. We also received a moderate num-
ber of protestors at the events, namely at the birthday
party (a group of 10–15 protestors), the keynote lecture
(a group of three-four protestors making speeches), and
the information booth (three–four of the same protes-
tors daily). ese protests, part of organized religious
group(s) (it is unclear if there was more than one group
represented), attempted to pass out flyers and brochures
about the dangers of teaching evolution to children, the
‘holes’ in the theory, and why evolution cannot be scien-
tifically tested. ese groups did not attempt to disrupt
the events or enter the buildings in which the events were
taking place. Darwin Day UT coordinators invited the
protesters to learn more about the events, but chose not
to press further or engage them negatively.
Acquiring a large volunteer base was clearly crucial for
this event. Although this paper reads as though we had
a large team of volunteers, it was often the same hand-
ful of approximately ten students that were called upon
regularly. We formed small committees (one for advertis-
ing, merchandise, contests, and the teachers workshop)
to handle each of the various tasks involved with the
event and each committee had some number of volun-
teers associated with it. Not all student volunteers were
equally dedicated to any given event; as with many events
involving multiple volunteers, some were not able to
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Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
fulfill their obligations without advance notice. In many
cases, the heads of the committees or the co-leaders had
to take on extra responsibilities, to aid in setting up tables
or creating flyers, ads, or posters, in the instance that the
volunteers originally performing the tasks were not able.
To circumvent these issues, many professors were will-
ing to offer small amounts of extra credit in exchange for
volunteering. Volunteers were also asked to provide their
contact information, which was distributed to all other
volunteers, to promote accountability. Reminders were
sent to the volunteers each evening. Coordinating vol-
unteers for the multiple events was easily the most time
consuming part of Darwin Day UT.
Obtaining survey data and feedback from attendees has
also been difficult; while voluntary surveys were handed
out at a number of the events (see “Attendance and
feedback” section below; Fig.4), a very low percentage
of attendees filled out the survey. Efforts to have more
people fill out the survey data for the upcoming years of
Darwin Day UT are underway (e.g., having student vol-
unteers ask attendees walking in the door and record-
ing the information digitally, instead of voluntary paper
We had some anecdotal evidence of success. We had
a number of students, community members, and teach-
ers approach us after the events to discuss what they
learned. A number of people communicated to us that
they had not fully understood how evolution worked in
the geologic time scale and that these events helped them
to better understand it. University students who spoke
to coordinators after the events stated that they learned
more about how paleontology data is collected and how
we can use it to understand evolutionary trends.
Attendance andfeedback
Approximately 1000 people attended Darwin Day UT
events in 2016, which is at least double the amount from
previous years. Approximately 40–50 people (largely all
students, staff, and faculty of the university) attended the
lunchtime lectures. Approximately 100–150 people (uni-
versity students, staff, and faculty, and interested com-
munity members) attended each of the lectures leading
up to the keynote lecture. Approximately 550–600 peo-
ple attended the keynote lecture by Dr. Neil Shubin; this
event received the most attendance from non-university
people, with many K-12 students, their parents, and
teachers present. Increased attendance from previous
years is likely due to increased advertising via Internet
sites and social media. Surveys for demographic infor-
mation were given out at each of the evening events;
information such as university status (if applicable), and
how each person heard about the event (Fig. 4). Space
Fig. 4 Survey data from attendees of evening lectures at Darwin Day 2016. While there were nearly 800–900 attendees, only 32 people filled out
the surveys; this data is not meant to be taken as representative of the attendee population as a whole. Pie graphs shown here depict affiliations
within the community and how the attendees heard of Darwin Day UT events
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Page 10 of 10
Sheeld and Bauer Evo Edu Outreach (2017) 10:10
was provided for feedback, if the attendee was willing
to communicate any. Unfortunately, a low percentage of
attendees filled out the surveys, so this data is not repre-
sentative of the 2016 Darwin Day UT attendance.
Future ofDarwin Day
We hope that providing a detailed account of our most
successful Darwin Day UT celebration in 19 years that
it will provide a framework for other institutions and
organizations to start their own chapter or increase their
existing presence. As public contention over scientific
theories continues to play a role in the education of stu-
dents of all ages, scientists must work to effectively edu-
cate the public in order to continue a strong presence in
scientific research and industry in the future. A scientifi-
cally literate public is necessary to successfully face the
challenges of a continually changing world, especially in
fields such as medicine, agriculture, and sustainability.
Darwin Day presents a fantastic opportunity to engage,
excite, and explore science and evolutionary biology
across the world.
Authors’ contributions
Authors contributed equally to writing the final manuscript. Both authors read
and approved the final manuscript.
Author details
1 School of Geosciences, The University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Ave,
NES 107, Tampa, FL 33620, USA. 2 Depar tment of Earth and Planetary Sciences,
The University of Tennessee, 1621 Cumberland Drive, 602 Strong Hall, Knox-
ville, TN 37996-1610, USA.
A warm thank you to the Darwin Day advisor, Dr. Brian O’Meara who provided
support and encouragement throughout our 2016 experience. Special
acknowledgment goes to Dr. Stephanie Drumheller for feedback on earlier
versions of this manuscript and to the anonymous reviewers who improved
this manuscript tremendously. The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary
Biology at UT has provided funding, storage space, and support for Darwin
Day UT since its emergence in 1997. Darwin Day UT would not be possible
without the help of all volunteers and funding sources over the years, includ-
ing: The Society for the Study of Evolution, The Knoxville Gem and Mineral
Society, the Dry Dredgers, the University of Tennessee Student Programming
and Allocation Committee, the Ready for the World Foundation, The McClung
Museum of Natural History, the University of Tennessee College of Arts and
Additional les
Additional le1. Teaching materials and lesson plans used during the
teachers workshop hosted through Darwin Day UT.
Additional le2. Sample letter sent to various departments on UT
campus to request funding for Darwin Day events.
Additional le3. Sample flyers created for Darwin Day UT events.
Sciences, College of Agricultural Sciences, Departments of: Earth and Plan-
etary Sciences, Psychology, Religious Studies, Theater, Biosystems Engineering
and Soil Science, and Entomology. We would also like to thank Kevin and
Cindy Collins, the artists behind the larger than life puppets of Charles Darwin
and Alfred Russel Wallace. Publishing fees were generously provided from the
Open Publishing Support Fund, co-sponsored by the Office of Research and
Engagement and the University Libraries.
Competing interests
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Availability of data and materials
The materials used for the teachers workshop, advertising, and funding from
Darwin Day UT 2016 Additional files 1, 2, 3 are available in the open access
Zenodo repository, For other lesson
plans and handouts not used during the workshop, but were still modified for
potential use, these materials are available at:
Publisher’s Note
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in pub-
lished maps and institutional affiliations.
Received: 18 October 2016 Accepted: 17 October 2017
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