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Introductory biology for nonmajors provides an opportunity to engage students with the complexity of life. In these courses, instructors also have the opportunity to experiment with course material and delivery, especially with an intent to overcome common misconceptions about biology. Fortunately, frameworks exist that can be integrated into a completely novel classroom framework: the AP biology curriculum and the tree of life. In addition, assessments are available that specifically address common misconceptions. I tested whether such a novel approach, covering the four big ideas in biology equally and structured around an accurate depiction of biodiversity as a branching history of evolution, can improve student comprehension of difficult biological concepts. In the end, I found that students improved significantly in their understanding of biology and were much less likely to have common misconceptions about difficult topics.
A paradigm shift away from viewing evolution primarily in terms of adaptation — the “adaptationist programme” of Gould and Lewontin — began in evolutionary research more than 35 years ago, but that shift has yet to occur within evolutionary education research or within teaching standards. We review three instruments that can help education researchers and educators undertake this paradigm shift. The instruments assess how biology undergraduates understand three evolutionary processes other than natural selection: genetic drift, dominance relationships among allelic pairs, and evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). Testing with these instruments reveals that students often explain a diversity of evolutionary mechanisms incorrectly by invoking misconceptions about natural selection. We propose that increasing the emphasis on teaching evolutionary processes other than natural selection could result in a better understanding of natural selection and a better understanding of all evolutionary processes. Finally, we propose two strategies for accomplishing this goal, interleaving natural selection with other evolutionary processes and the development of bridging analogies to describe evolutionary concepts.
The choice of the scientific method to be used depends on the question to be investigated, the type of study being performed, and the maturity of the particular subdiscipline. I review the scientific methods frequently used in biology since Darwin, the aspects of the nature of science relevant for teaching and learning about evolution, and some recent studies that tested the theory of evolution and some of its features. I also present some guidelines for teachers, within an inquiry-based instructional framework, to facilitate students' understanding that hypothesis-driven and observation-driven studies are equally important and responsible for the advancement of scientific knowledge in the field of biology, both in the past and in the present.
We have developed a new DNA extraction experiment for high schools. It uses the concept “Life possesses not only unity, but also diversity” to teach Japanese and American students that various organisms have DNA in their bodies as a common chemical background. In this experiment, students extract DNA from representative organisms of the five kingdoms Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia (although the system of classification into five kingdoms has been replaced by three domains in current taxonomy, Japanese students are familiar with this classification system from their earlier education). After practice experiments with high school students and biology teachers were performed, the educational effects were evaluated by questionnaires. The results suggested that the DNA extraction experiments were effective to a certain extent and that, although several points should be improved, this experiment is adequate for practice in high schools.
Biological concepts such as transcription, translation, codons, and genes can be confusing and overwhelming to high school biology students, yet these are prominent topics assessed on high-stakes standardized tests. I present a project-based assessment approach that can help students organize the wealth of information covered during units on genetics and protein synthesis. Students create a three-dimensional “Design-o-saur” model based on the genetic sequences of parent dinosaurs that they have already transcribed and translated to determine the proteins responsible for the observable traits. Ready-to-use handouts, evaluation rubrics, and student guidelines are included.
The purpose of this activity is to provide precollege biology students a visual representation of evolution. Unfortunately, many resources begin with the start of life, which ignores the fact that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old. This model uses adding-machine tape to sequence events. Representation of major evolutionary and geologic events helps students visualize macroevolution.
Evolution is a fundamental principle in biology, yet students, teachers, and the public at large all too often misunderstand the way it works. I introduce a hands-on exercise that emphasizes tree-thinking and phylogenies to organize biodiversity. During the activity, students observe and investigate the patterns and processes of macroevolution by first building unique specimens through gradual, stepwise changes in characters. They then switch specimens with another group and, by observing shared characters, hypothesize the evolutionary relationships of the specimens by drawing phylogenies. The exercise has been used for several years, and pretest—posttest results confirm that it significantly improves student understanding of macroevolution and phylogenetics.
To teach the most central concepts in evolutionary biology, we present an activity in pollination biology. Students play the role of either pollinator or flower and work through a set of scenarios to maximize plant fitness. This “Pollination Game” facilitates critical and inquiry-based thinking, and we accompany each round of the exercise with a set of discussion questions and answers. We have piloted and fine tuned this exercise with high school students, and improved the exercise with the input of high school teachers at a teaching conference. The activity could easily be adapted for freshman undergraduate students.
This structured set of lab activities allows students to explore the evolution of pelvic spine reduction in stickleback fish. The exercise draws upon the field of evolutionary and developmental biology (evo-devo) and information presented in the HHMI Holiday Lecture entitled “Fossils, Genes, and Embryos.” Students analyze fossil data from a rich stickleback deposit in Nevada, documenting the evolution of pelvic spine reduction in a preserved population, and then use Hardy-Weinberg analysis to explore the role of natural selection in this type of evolutionary event. Finally, students use molecular genetics and polymerase chain reaction to uncover the evolutionary role of gene switches in pelvic spine reduction. Collectively, the lab activities explore a specific evolutionary event from the combined perspectives of fossil evidence, natural selection, and molecular genetics. The lab also serves as a good introduction to the concepts of gene switches and evo-devo.
Students measure and sketch physical characteristics of 15 fossilized horse teeth. Each student group creates a graph that summarizes the trend between age of the fossil and length of the tooth. Plant information cards summarizing the flora of each epoch and guided analysis questions allow students to develop an explanation for the change in horse teeth in response to plant evolution due to a changing climate.