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National Association of Biology Teachers

University of California Press

An Active Introduction to Evolution
Author(s): Michael Lach and Michael Loverude
Source: The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Feb., 1998), pp. 132-136
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Association of Biology
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to Evolution


Michael Lach
The theory of evolution is one of the
unifying themes in modern biology,
and one of the greatest human intellectual achievements. Evolution is rightly
a cornerstone of modern biology curriculums. Yet there is evidence that
students leave a traditional lesson on
evolution with serious conceptual misunderstandings (Bishop & Anderson
In most introductory biology classes
at the secondary school level, the fun
and exciting laboratories and hands-on
activities are saved for the units on
taxonomy, cellular biology, physiology, and photosynthesis. During the
evolution unit most teachers resort to
the old-fashioned book and lecture format, imparting knowledge to passive
students instead of letting kids develop
the model themselves. This article presents a series of simple and inexpensive hands-on activities, with a host of
extension lesson ideas, that can be used
to actively introduce students to the
scientific theory of evolution. The lessons are designed to thwart common
student difficulties, as shown by research and our experience. All lessons
have been tested in introductory biology classes in several types of schools.

Some Definitions
For the sake of clarity, let us distinguish between evolutionary fact and
evolutionary theory. It is not our intention to give credence to pseudoscience
or creationism, but to clarify the difference between the large body of experMichael Lach teaches Environmental
Science, Biology and Physics at Lake
View High School, Chicago, IL60657,
e-mail: mikelach@aol. com. Michael
Loverude is a physics Ph.D. candidate at the University of WashingWA 98112, e-mail:
ton, Seattle,
previously taught Biology and Genin New
eral Science

Michael Loverude

imental and experiential evidence and

the logical and supported conclusions
that are based upon such evidence.
Researchers in various fields have
discovered evidence that suggests that
organisms on the planet Earth have
changed over time. This evidence includes but is not limited to the following:
1. The fossil record includes remains
of organisms that are distinctly
different from living organisms of
today. For example, fossils of dinosaurs and trilobites have been
found all around the world, but
neither now lives on the Earth.
2. Living organisms use similar
chemical processes. For example,
the chemical structure of all living
organisms is based on carbon
chemistry, and all living cells use
the glycolytic pathway to produce
some of their ATP.
3. Different organisms often have
similar structural anatomy. For
example, birds, whales
snakes all have a vertebral column that protects a major nerve,
suggesting a common ancestor.
4. Organisms with similar traits tend
to be located geographically close
to one another. For example, species on ocean islands resemble
species on the mainland, suggesting that both evolved from a common ancestor.
5. Observations on a microscopic
scale, involving simple and/or
changes over several generations.
For example, strains of bacteria
will acquire resistance to drugs
over the course of several generations.
The scientific theory of evolutionfirst articulated by Charles Darwinaccounts for this evidence by explaining how the genetic makeup of a
population in a particular environment
would change over time. Environmental factors favor individual organisms
with certain genetic characteristics, and

thus give those individuals a greater

opportunity to reproduce and pass on
their genetic traits. Genetic differences
among species encourage those with
greater reproductive potential to survive. Over time, changes within species
lead to differences between species and
to the formation of new species (Raven
& Johnson 1991). "New characteristics
originate due to random changes in
genetic material ['random mutation']
then survive or disappear due to selection by environmental factors ['natural
selection']" (Bishop & Anderson 1990).
Note that this "survival of the fittest"
notion incorporates the relationship between a population and its environment as a primary mechanism driving
biological change.

Teaching & Learning

About Evolution
Many students think biology in general and the theory of evolution in
particular are boring. Few activities in
the traditional evolution unit are mobile, hands-on, and exciting. Students,
especially those in 9th and 10th grade,
need to move and interact. Showing
pictures of vestigial structures and
naming common molecules is boring,
and flashy fossils are too expensive for
many schools to obtain.
Moreover, evolution presents many
conceptual difficulties that students are
unlikely to overcome in a passive
learning environment. A teacher must
set up a classroom where the students
are doing their own observing, thinking and sharing if students are to build
their own understanding of the conceptual foundation. Students should be
led to observations that will help them
to confront the difficulties which have
been identified by research on teaching
and learning. Some of conceptual difficulties include:
1. Evolution is two connected processes-the
generation of new
traits due to random changes in
genetic material, and the selection


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of traitsto survive based on environmental factors. Students have

difficulty separating the two
(Bishop & Anderson 1990).
2. Many students describe the process of natural selection as happening independent of the environment native to the organism.
An understandingof "survivalof
the fittest"needs to be built upon
an understanding of the characteristics of a particular environment. To develop this understanding, students ought to
experiencehow one species is related to another,to see how many
species relate to make an ecosystem, and to watch changes in all
partsof the environmentaffectthe
chances of survival for certain
types of organisms.
3. Many students do not distinguish
between physical traits and genetic traits. Students believe that
children inherit all characteristics
of their parents in a Lamarckian
manner, instead of only the genetic traits(Brumby1984).See Table 1 for an example.
4. Students don't understand why
variationwithin a population is a
cornerstoneof current evolutionary theory (Brumby1984).
Unfortunately,much of the evidence
for evolution is difficultto reproducein
a junior or high school classroom:it is
logistically difficult to obtain the variety of fossils necessary so students can
make their own interpretationsof the
fossil record;minute changes in organisms are difficult to observe; and, in
most cases, growing successive generations takes too much time for even a
full semester.In this case, where direct
observation and experimentation are
difficult,students and teachers can do
what scientists often do- construct a
model and attempt to simulate a complex system with a set of simple rules.

An Active Approach
Teaching Evolution


How can a class be taught to address

these issues? Our classes are structured
around a predator-prey simulation
game that creates a springboard for
furtherdiscussion of the evidence, theory and mechanisms of evolution.
Startingwith a simple scenario allows
the students to formulateand test their
own hypotheses relating changes over
time to living things.
This program includes a three-day
series of activities, which are designed
for the traditional middle or high
school classroom but can easily be ex-

Table 1. Student misconceptions between physical and genetic traits (Brumby


If this little (fair skinned) girl grew up in Africawhat would you

predict would happen to the color of her skin?
She'd get sunburnt,then tanned.
If she then marriedsomeone of her own race and they lived in
Africa and had childrenborn in Africa,what would you
predict their children'sskin would look like at birth?
(pause) The kids could be slightlydarkerat birth.

Table 2. Goals for student growth.


Goalfor StudentGrowth

Day 1

The students will describe the relationshipsbetween organismsin a

simple ecosystem.
The students will accumulateand present evidence that
demonstratesthat variationoccurs naturallywithin a species.
The students will list differentfactorsthat are thought to bring
about changes in the traits of a population.

Day 2
Day 3

panded and extended. The goals for

student growth over the three days are
listed in Table 2. Of course, the lessons
and activities will need to be adapted
to specific teaching context and to the
level of the students. Some suggestions
for alternatives and extensions are included in the discussion below.

Day One: InitialEvolutionary

By controlling variables, the students
can discover the interdependence of
organisms in an ecosystem. Explain to
students that they will be role-playing
a variety of organisms, and that for the
sake of this lesson their organisms will
obey the following rules:
1. Two similar organisms meet and
produce one offspring of the same
2. Hawks eat only rabbits. Rabbits
eat only grass.
3. It is assumed that grasses get all
the nourishment they need.
4. Animals-hawks
and rabbitsmust eat at least every other turn
to avoid death by starvation.
Take three times as many index
cards as students and divide the cards
into three even groups. On one third of
the cards, write "hawk." On another
third, write "rabbit." On the rest, write
"grass." Draw a data collection chart
(shown on Table 3) in a central location.
After students understand the rules
of the simulation, pass out one card at
random to each student. Remind the
students to keep their identities secret,
and that this is a learning activity, not a

"win-or-lose"game. Count the initial

numberof organismsof each type, and
record the data on the chart.Then, say
"go!"and let the students move about
the classroomuntil they find a partner
and reveal their "identities."This part
of the game can be a little chaotic,so be
sure to have a signal for students to
settle down once they have all paired

At this point, quickly circulate to

each pair and help the students apply
the rules. If the cardsmention the same
species, add a third card to the group.
If the pair is a feeding combination
(hawk and rabbitor rabbitand grass),
take the "eaten"card out of play. Once
the rules have been applied, redistribute the cards so each student has one
role to play; those students whose organisms were eaten should play the
newly created ones, so there is always
full class participation.
Tally the living organisms'cards on
the chalkboardchart.Repeat this cycle
for four or five generations, keeping
track of the number of each organism
alive after each repetition, and being
carefulto rememberthe starvationrule
(#4).After a couple runs, it should take
less than three minutes to play each
iteration.The students should quickly
see the interdependence of the three
organisms. Sample data collected in
one class are shown in Figure 1.
Run the simulation until students
seem to be comfortablewith the process and the outcome. Then, stop and
discuss. Be sure to address the following questions: How can you describe
the relationship between hawks and

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Table 3. Sample data table.






rabbits? How can you describe the relationship between hawks and grass?
Do hawks need grass to live? Do rabbits need hawks? At some point during
the period the students should be led
to consider whether the game is realistic. What are the assumptions the game
makes? How could the game more
accurately reflect the real world?
Ask the students to predict the results if you were to start with an uneven number of organisms, and then
start over with those different initial
conditions. Give out only two or three
grass cards, two or three hawks, and
give the majority of the class rabbits;
then solicit predictions from the class
for the numbers after five generations.
Run the game until the students can
see the rabbits quickly die out, and the
hawks reproduce rapidly and then die
from starvation. For the remainder of
the first day, play the simulation with
other initial conditions, and have students graph their results. Sample data
with such a skewed distribution are
shown in Figure 2.

At the close of the day, reemphasize

the important points to the students in
light of the goals for student growth
(Table 2). Organisms depend on one
another, and a delicate balance between species allows an ecosystem to
be sustaining. There's no need to even
introduce evolution at this point. As in
the subsequent days, the stage will be
set for the students to discover it on
their own.

Day Two: Differences Within

Students need to be totally and utterly convinced that, unlike the organisms in the previous day's game, reallife rabbits, hawks and grass are not all
identical. Populations consist of groups
of the same species, but each individual has slight differences. Although
this statement may seem obvious, students should be able to discover and
articulate the idea on their own. On the
second day, allow students to examine
the idea of variation within a species.

First Trial: Even Distribution

15 -t4-4


- -Hawks


~~.....- --- - - - - - - - - --.....-..-.....I



Figure 1. Even distribution.

Divide the class into their usual lab

or work groups, and give each team
samples of several individuals of one
species to investigate. The samples
could be complete organisms or parts
of organisms-leaves
from a nearby
tree, boiled chicken wing bones, flowers, preserved specimens, peanuts, and
the actual class members are all possibilities. Five or six individuals of each
organism are sufficient. Have each
group measure three quantities for
each organism, such as the height,
weight, length, number of veins, number of petals, or number of nuts in a
shell. For each quantity, have them
describe which
small-would be most beneficial to the
survivability of the individual. In the
last 10 minutes of class, have each
group present the average and range of
each measurement to the rest of the
class, and their "most beneficial" discussion. Students will be able to argue
that there is significant variation within
the species they examined, and then
generalize that to all species.
At the close of the activity, draw
them back to yesterday's simulation
and the goals you've set (Table 2).
Students should realize that within a
group of individuals of the same species, there exist substantial differences.
They should further be able to identify
some differences that affect an organism's ability to survive and reproduce
given a particular set of environmental

Day Three: Changing


Begin the third day's lesson by asking students about variation within a
species, and remind them of the game
played two days before. With guidance, students will recognize a limitation of the game: all the individual
rabbits, hawks and grass were assumed to be identical. Today, control
the differences: now, some rabbits are
fast and some are slow. To rationalize
this simplification, compare the rabbits
to humans: since some people can run
faster than other humans, it is logical to
assume that some rabbits can run faster
than other rabbits. Write either "fast"
or "slow" on each rabbit card. Again,
distribute equal numbers of hawks,
rabbits and grass, but label half the
rabbits as fast and half as slow. Announce the following rule changes.
5. If two rabbits meet, the resulting
offspring will resemble the parents, unless the parents differ. If
the parents differ, the rabbit offspring will be fast on a coin toss of
heads and slow on a toss of tails.


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(The nuances of Mendelian genetics have been sacrificed for easeof-play; see the section on Expansion which follows.)
6. Hawks always eat slow rabbits.
Rabbits always eat grass.
7. Hawks eat fast rabbits only if a
subsequent coin toss is heads.
Now, run the game, again noting the
numbers of surviving organisms at the
end of each generation. In a class of
about 20, with the cards distributed at
random, after four or five iterations the
numbers will show a decided shift in
the rabbit population towards fast rabbits, and a subsequent decline in the
hawk population. The population of
rabbits changes, as fast rabbits are better able to survive and reproduce. (See
Figure 3.)
Again, run the simulation with different initial conditions. Try an initial
rabbit population that is one-third fast
and two-thirds slow. The students
should see that the rabbits that moved
slowly are more likely to get eaten, and
that the majority of the surviving rabbit
population is the fast type.
Check back over what you've introduced and taught. By this point, students have collected evidence about
changing organisms, and now can formulate their own explanation that describes why changes in organisms are
observed! Be sure to emphasize the fact
that it was the genetic traits-the traits
the organisms were born with-that
were passed on to subsequent generations.

As these lessons demand a good deal
of teacher facilitation and interaction,
informal assessment of the goals during class time is pretty straightforward.
The activities are set up to introduce
elementary concepts, so followup formal assessment should be designed to
incorporate the lessons that come after
as well. The authors have developed
everything from paper-and-pencil tests
based on this material ("predict what
would happen to a population
that.. .")
to portfolio
projects where students design and run
their own simulations to answer individual questions about evolution.









10 o1

5 -- - - - - - - - --


- - - -



Figure 2. Skewed distribution.
Monte Carlo computer simulation of
this game; such a program would be a
great project for advanced students or
to connect with a math class. Maxis
Software's SimLife game presents a
much more accurate game world for
students who seem limited by the inaccuracies and simplifications of this scenario. Teach some statistical analysisnormal curves, standard deviations-to
aid the second day's number crunching. Have the students invent their
own simulations- or even collect their
own real data-using what they know
of organisms in their neighborhoods.
Connect the environmental study to
the newer directed evolution theories.
As always, there are plenty of graphs,
charts and tables to draw, questions to
answer, predictions to test, and conclusions to be made.

lows. Many of them involve running

the simulation with differing rules to
highlight other ways evolutionary
changes can occur.
It's easy to gloss over the role of
reproductive potential in determining
the survivability of a species. Run the
simulation once or twice adding two
new grass cards instead of one each
time a new grass is "born" to show the
effects of reproductive rate, or add
rules for infant mortality. Isolate the
rabbits into two groups by a "mountain range" to demonstrate how species
diverge. Add different strains of hawks
to demonstrate how the success of one
trait in one species influences the development of another. Use Punnett
squares and roll dice to more accurately represent the inheritance of traits
by the rabbits. It's pretty simple using a
random number generator to write a

>12 o--


:. .....Grass

6 L



The lessons and activities presented

here are only an introduction. Follow
through with a more thorough and
formal explanation of evolutionary fact
and theory. A brief and incomplete
discussion of expansion activities fol-

Figure 3. Diverse rabbit population.


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The authorswould like to thankJohn
Brown, Nathan Dubowski, Edward
Gilmartin, Elliot Hartman, Ben
Kramer,Julie Mikuta,Jake Socha, and
the inspiring students of Alcee Fortier
Senior High School and Booker T.
Washington High School in New Orleans, the School of the Futurein New

York, and Lake View High School in

Chicago for their assistance and support.

Bishop, B.A. & Anderson, C.W. (1990).
Student conceptions of natural selec-

H"APS '98


1 998

tion and its role in evolution. Journal

of Researchin ScienceTeaching,(27)5,
Brumby, M.N. (1984). Misconceptions
about the concept of natural selection by medical biology students.
Raven, P.H. & Johnson, G.B. (1993).
UnderstandingBiology, second edition. St. Louis:Mosby-YearBook.






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