Academic journal article Genetics

How Are Humans Related to Other Primates?: A Guided Inquiry Laboratory for Undergraduate Students

Academic journal article Genetics

How Are Humans Related to Other Primates?: A Guided Inquiry Laboratory for Undergraduate Students

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Understanding that phylogenies depict the evolutionary history of species is a critical concept for undergraduate biology students. We present an inquiry-based laboratory exercise exploring this concept in the context of the human phylogeny. This activity reinforces several important biological concepts and skills. Bolstered concepts include that evolution is descent with modification, that evolution is a genetic process, and that humans are closely related to apes. In terms of thinking skills, the lab gives students practice with hypothetical-deductive thinking, quantifying patterns from complex data, and evaluating evidence.

Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

DARWIN (1859)

Inquiry ... is the central strategy for teaching science.

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL (1996)

THERE is an emerging consensus that undergraduate biology coursework should teach thinking skills as well as content-and that student inquiry is an essential tool for reaching both goals (e.g., NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL 1996, 200Ob, 2003). Despite the recognition that inquiry is an important component of science education, there is a daunting shortage of inquiry-based lessons available for instructors teaching undergraduate biology. The shortage is particularly acute for laboratory exercises, which is unfortunate, because laboratory exercises offer students an ideal opportunity to practice scientific investigation.

One potential reason for this shortage is that inquiry is a multifaceted activity that is difficult to define and, therefore, difficult to teach. Each of the following activities, for example, fits within most definitions of inquiry: asking questions, reviewing available knowledge, formulating hypotheses, testing hypotheses, evaluating evidence, relating results to previous knowledge, and communicating results. In addition, activities designed to exercise inquiry skills can vary by how much selfdirection is required of students (e.g., NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL 2002). University faculties hope that a doctoral student will be able to identify a meaningful question, propose hypotheses to answer the question, design tests for these hypotheses, interpret results, and then publish their findings, but would not expect such independence from undergraduate students in an introductory biology class.

While designing labs for an introductory biology class for biology majors, we have decided that each investigation should require students to figure out something for themselves. In this article, we describe a two-part laboratory lesson that helps students answer one of the most meaningful questions in biology: How are humans related to other animals? Students answer the question by analyzing skull morphology and DNA sequences among primate species. The lab requires both creativity and critical thinking. Creativity is required to develop methods to infer phylogeny from skull morphology and DNA sequences. Critical thinking is required when students discover that the phylogeny they reconstruct from DNA sequences does not agree with the phylogeny they reconstruct from skull morphology. This twist to the lab requires students to think deeply about how evolution works. In our experience, most undergraduate students are not prepared to tackle this series of questions without preparation. Therefore, students are given a series of introductory problems in which they learn the skills needed to analyze skulls and DNA sequences.

This lab reinforces several important biological concepts and skills. These concepts include: biological diversity is hierarchal, evolution is descent with modification, evolution is a genetic process, and humans are closely related to apes (Figure 1). Skills practiced include: hypothetical-deductive thinking, quantifying patterns from complex data, and critically evaluating evidence. Less tangibly, but perhaps more importantly, we hope this lab increases students' ability and willingness to confront difficult questions. …

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