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These students
are learning to think
like evolutionary
biologists.

National Mathematics
and Science Center,
University of
Wisconsin-Madison

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The goal is to help students think like evolutionary biologists
Evolution!

Evolutionary education
As the national controversy over teaching evolution heats up, a group of Wisconsin educators is developing a new way to teach the basic concepts of evolution through natural selection. Students working Instead of dousing students with facts and definitions, the new teaching approach, now being tested with juniors and seniors at Monona Grove High School near Madison, asks students to draw conclusions based on biological data on a specific organism.

The course begins by discussing the way scientists draw conclusions from data, and then examines three proposed explanations for the origin and diversity of life on Earth:

 

William Paley's ideas on the creation of organisms by an intelligent designer

Jean Baptiste Lamarck's notion that acquired characteristics can be inherited

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwinian theory, a foundation of modern biology, holds that organisms vary somewhat, and that the environment, through a process of "natural selection," allows more of the fittest -- best adapted -- organisms to reproduce. Over time, therefore, organisms adapt to their environment and prosper, or they die out.

The teaching approach, developed by the National Mathematics and Science Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an effort to induce students to think like scientists, and to use, not just learn, vital scientific concepts. Ideally, students will learn to bind isolated facts into a web of explanation that accords with accepted scientific theories.

Seed Warrior
Excellent explanations
A prime task of evolutionary biologists is to use natural selection to explain how organisms reproduce, since different rates of reproduction contribute to species changes over time. seed pod up close Students in one case study concerns plant seeds: Unless seeds have protection against predators, plants will have difficulty occupying new habitats. In this study, students are introduced to populations of a hypothetical plant whose seeds are protected by a thick coat and/or spines.

The supplied data concerns the:

plant's home range in Africa and introduction to the United States in the 1600s

natural history of two insects that eat the plant's seeds

inheritance mechanism for seed-protection characteristics

presence of thick and thin seed coats, and of protective spines

current population distribution of the plant.

From there the students must "work with this data to develop a Darwinian explanation for the differences in seed-coat characteristics in the different populations of the plant," says Jim Stewart, a University of Wisconsin-Madison science education professor who is leading the project.

The seed-coat project concludes when the students present posters on the work to the class, whose members act as scientific critics.

A second project seeks an evolutionary explanation for why some butterflies have evolved to resemble the toxic monarch butterfly. monarch

Stewart says the project's goal is simple: "To help students think like evolutionary biologists." The students are not expected to devise the only possible explanation, but "explanations that are consistent with the data and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection."

Class discussions show a great depth of understanding, Stewart says. "The issues that are raised almost never come up in traditional biology classes. When does a species actually become a new species? How would you know that some fossils represent two species, as opposed to variation within one species?" These questions, he adds, are "indications of the intellectual capability, insight and curiosity of high-school students."

Last June, two students took the acid test by showing their posters at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, Stewart says, where they had a chance to discuss their ideas with attending biologists.

An age of limits
The new teaching approach is part of a larger effort by the National Mathematics and Science Center to develop new ways to teach essential parts of high-school science, such as the motion of celestial bodies and genetics.

Yet designing a good teaching approach, Stewart adds, may be easier than actually obtaining widespread use. While the approach will be promoted at science-teacher conferences , dissemination is difficult. "Just plunking information into the laps of teachers may not work very well," says Stewart, because the new approach departs from traditional teaching techniques and because schools seldom provide teachers with opportunities to collaborate on key issues. And since the new approach encourages students to inquire deeply into a narrower range of material, there is no time to cover some elements of evolution taught in traditional classes. dna

Still, Stewart says that because evolution is so crucial to biology, a deep knowledge of evolution may be more important than the broad but shallow understanding resulting from typical teaching approaches. In reality, Stewart hopes that the lessons extend beyond biology, since the overall goal of the project is to "try to engage students in an active and extended opportunity to do work that has some similarity to what scientists actually do."

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