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Astrobiology seeks to understand life in the universe through various disciplines and approaches. Astrobiology not only provides crosscutting content, but its study supports the three dimensions of learning promoted by the Next Generation Science Standards. While astrobiology research has been progressive and has accomplished great feats for science and society, astrobiology education in schools and colleges has lagged behind astrobiology research. Astrobiology can be used in the classroom as an engaging context for the Socratic method or in long- or short-term projects to encourage higher-order thinking.
A useful approach to answering the Next Generation Science Standards' call for teaching students to demonstrate understanding using mathematical representations is use of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (H-W eq). This article is focused on the meaning of H-W eq and its application, rather than mathematical manipulation. Typical textbook problems are critiqued, and a model problem is presented.
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.
This exercise utilizes nightcrawler decomposition to guide students through the methods of science, including forming hypotheses, conducting an experiment, statistically analyzing data, and writing a lab report in the style of a scientific journal article. Additionally, students gain experience with dissection, anatomical terminology, and the biological process of animal decomposition. Students interested in forensic science will enjoy exploring the topic of decomposition. The materials for this experiment are inexpensive and easy to obtain, and several extension activities make this a versatile activity that can be used at many different educational levels.
Natural selection is a mechanism of evolution that leads to adaptations in species or populations. Phenotypes confer habitat-specific fitness consequences, which could lead to the evolution of similar strategies (convergence) or different strategies (divergence) within and across species. The evolution of communication is an example of convergent evolution in many cases. We describe a learning game that simulates the emergence of language and highlights differences between convergent and divergent evolution. With minor modifications, this game can also be used to illustrate phenotypic plasticity. During three preliminary trials, high school and university students representing different species developed novel strategies (languages) to solve the common problem of finding “Garrett,” a student who mimicked an essential resource. Naturally, there was a range of complexity and diversity among the strategies that emerged. We describe how the game can help illustrate evolutionary principles such as adaptation and natural selection.
Microbial cultures swiftly adapt to lethal agents such as antibiotics or viruses by acquiring resistance mutations. Does this remarkable adaptability require a Lamarckian explanation, whereby the agent specifically directs resistance mutations? Soon after the question arose, Luria and Delbrück devised a clever experiment, the fluctuation test, that answered this question in the negative: microbial adaptation, they showed, is entirely consistent with a Darwinian explanation. Their 1943 article is a classic of biology literature, with practical and theoretical implications that continue to expand today. Implementing an updated fluctuation test in a college teaching lab provides a simple experimental setting in which beginning students learn to apply basic principles of evolutionary biology and scientific reasoning, while gaining hands-on experience in core technical advances of contemporary life science.
Bananas can be used in many classroom lab activities to make carbohydrates easier for students to understand. I detail a simple series of banana activities that can be used to investigate carbohydrates across a wide range of levels of organization and that serve to connect carbohydrate concepts that might otherwise seem disparate to students. For example, the taste of a banana is linked to carbohydrate hydrolysis, as well as to organelle content within banana cells. Bananas can be used safely in any classroom, and inquiry-based learning can be used to progress through related course content. In addition, students will gain expertise in understanding cells viewed through the microscope as they try to examine the starch in the bananas.
We used personal mobile electronic devices (PMEDs) to engage students in a lesson to support evolutionary thinking in an undergraduate biology course. Community-college students enrolled in Biodiversity & Evolution, a core majors biology course, met for an optional field trip at the University of Idaho's McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS) in central Idaho during the summer of 2014. Ten students participated in the classroom and outdoor activities. Students were provided with directions and objectives for the lesson, and students' own PMEDs were used to capture images of the community of organisms in and around the outdoor campus. After returning from the field, students analyzed their digital data in the context of morphological similarities and differences to construct a phylogenetic hypothesis for the relationships of the organisms observed. Students' comments were solicited regarding the activity, and feedback was generally positive. From the teachers' perspective, students appeared highly engaged and the novel method was a success. We discuss the theoretical basis for using PMEDs and provide a detailed lesson plan.
Congenital heart disease in newborns exhibits a spectrum of defects, one of which is the occlusion of the vascular conduits of the arteries. For students first learning about cardiovascular lesions, the tortuous path of blood vessels can be visually overwhelming to the untrained eye, and useful models are needed to help deconstruct the morphological complexity of heart chambers and vessel location during heart development and disease. Here, I present two hands-on activities to explore how pulmonary artery stenosis may have dire consequences, such as cardiac muscle cell hypertrophy. These activities will not only help students explore genetic aberrations associated with congenital heart diseases, but will also encourage them to think about how to develop molecular and cellular strategies that fix primary obstruction in other branched organs such as the gut, kidney, and pancreas.