Understanding how to read and interpret phylogenetic trees is an essential skill for biology students. We tested an alternative approach in which students draw trees showing the evolution of familiar nonliving objects, such as cell phones and vehicles, rather than unfamiliar species. We surveyed students in a two-semester biology sequence for majors to determine whether this approach increased engagement, and we found that they preferred the alternative approach. Another group of students performing the activity with nonliving objects showed that performance on a content assessment was not changed before and after the activity. A final group showed that students who had drawn trees of nonliving objects beforehand were able to draw phylogenetic trees of living species more accurately than classmates who did not draw them previously. Although drawing trees of nonliving objects rather than living species did not affect students' content-learning outcomes, it did improve their ability to draw phylogenetic trees accurately, and they preferred it. These pieces of evidence suggest that drawing trees showing the evolution of nonliving objects is an engaging and beneficial addition to evolution lesson plans.
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