Teaching Evolution through Inquiry-Based Lessons of Uncontroversial Science

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Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

--Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973, The American Biology Teacher)

Antibiotic resistance, genetically modified produce, avian flu, and invasive species persistence are just a few scientific issues pulled from the headlines that affect society on a daily basis. Understanding these issues requires knowledge of evolutionary processes. Educating students about evolution may never have been as necessary as it is today; however, public battles between science and religion provide hurdles to teaching evolution (Futuyma, 1995; Miller et al., 2006). The need to produce students equipped to understand current and future scientific issues of societal relevance is rarely disputed. Therefore, we must find creative ways to accomplish this goal. Improving a student's ability to understand evolution may be achieved through an inquiry-based module that focuses on relevant and uncontroversial geological, physical, and life sciences.

This module engages students in determining the age of their fossil, its relationship to living organisms, and observing natural selection through inquiry-based and collaborative learning. By first understanding the scientific methods used by paleontologists to document evolutionary processes, later lessons specific to evolution are effective and well-received.

Building Evolutionary Understandings Without Using the E-word

As a National Science Foundation (NSF) GK-12 Graduate Fellow collaborating with an eighth-grade science teacher at an under-represented middle school in northcentral Florida, I was eager to teach evolution to our students. However, as soon as I mentioned that I studied evolution, students frequently responded, "I'm not related to monkeys." When I proceeded to explain that evolution is, "change in the properties of populations of organisms over time" (Mayr, 2001), I noticed that students were often unwilling to open their minds to discussions regarding this subject, whereas other disciplines (such as geology or ecology) never elicited such reactions. Why were they shutting off when I mentioned "evolution"? How could I get them to understand what evolution really is? I then remembered an exhibit I saw at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History that taught numerous evolutionary concepts without ever mentioning the word "evolution." Could I do the same? I quickly learned that evolution could be taught by building understandings of uncontroversial science, classification methods, and by allowing students to engage in natural selection.

The module described here consists of three lessons that address National Science Education Standards (National Resource Council, 1996; Table 1) and have the potential to improve science process skills through interdisciplinary content. All lessons utilize group collaborations and provide inquiry-based activities that model the science done by university professors and scientists. Additionally, each lesson focuses on understanding uncontroversial scientific material including the law of superposition (i.e., the idea that younger sediments are laid down on top of older sediments), relative vs. absolute dating (i.e., methods for determining the age of fossils and surrounding rocks), classification methods, and the process of natural selection. The e-word, "evolution," is not used in any of the lessons in order for students to maintain open minds while engaging in the scientific processes used to study evolutionary biology. Because the e-word is not mentioned, upon completion of the module, it is crucial that evolution is discussed in reference to what they learned. Students can then learn about evolution explicitly through connecting evolutionary biology to their experiences with the module.

The Stratigraphy Mystery

Students are often told that fossil evidence demonstrates support for evolution. …