Deepening our Understanding of Evolution

Over the last few months, a few of us in the CUNY Adult Literacy/HSE Program have been working on a lesson set on evolution. While poking around the Internet and educating ourselves, we have found some wonderful resources for science education, which we will share over the next few months. 

We are exploring evolution for HSE instruction because it is one of the high emphasis areas for assessment on the HSE exam and because evolution through natural selection is the unifying theory of all life science, making sense of countless observations in biology, zoology, medical science, ecology, etc. Teaching evolution allows us to make connections between topics such as primate behavior, ecology, adaptation, DNA, embryonic development and heredity, all topics that show up in HSE assessment*. For many of us, however, teaching evolution in a coherent way is a daunting challenge. We need resources to help understand the science and make it accessible for our students.

HHMI BioInteractive can help teachers develop background knowledge of evolutionary theory. The site publishes a range of educational materials (films, lectures, and classroom resources) on scientific discovery, including sections on evolution, ecology, chemistry, genetics and the scientific process, among others. The areas that have been most useful on the topic of evolution are the Holiday Lectures on Science, the Teacher’s Guide to Evolution, and the short film, The Making of a Theory, with supporting materials.

The Holiday Lectures on Science by experts on evolutionary biology, paleontology, geology and related subjects are a great way for teachers to learn more about the scientific subjects we now need to teach. Sean Carroll’s lecture in Evolution: Constant Change and Common Threads is fantastic. He starts by telling Darwin’s story as a young man exploring nature, dropping out of medical school, traveling for five years on the HMS Beagle and, eventually, publishing his great idea in The Origin of Species. I really like how Carroll moves through the story slowly, helping us to understand the facts and observations Darwin was considering as he developed a theory of natural selection as the mechanism by which evolution proceeds. This one lecture communicates a clear understanding of how species change over time through the necessary requirements of variation, selection and time. As someone who is new to teaching evolution, I appreciate the essential elements presented within Darwin’s biography as the central figure in the history of the idea. When I think about how to engage students in the details of evolution, I need to have an understanding of how these pieces fit together, so that I can help students look at evidence, raise questions and make inferences in putting it together for themselves. This lecture helped me move in that direction.

The Evolution: Fossils, Genes and Mousetraps lecture by Kenneth Miller is also helpful. His lecture should be interesting to teachers who are concerned about controversy around the teaching of evolution. Much of this lecture (including a clip of his appearance on the Colbert Show) is a response to Intelligent Design/Creationism. He starts by clarifying the difference between the scientific definition of the words “theory” and “fact” (Preview: Facts support theories. Theories explain facts. Theories never become facts, no matter how much evidence there is.). Miller, a devout Catholic, sees no conflict between the science of evolution and his faith. I doubt that his position is satisfactory for all people of faith, but it’s important to see that the idea of Evolution vs. Religion is a false dichotomy. (For statements from religious leaders supporting the theory of evolution, see this excerpt from the K-12 Framework for Science Education.)

Your next stop at HHMI might be the Teacher’s Guide to Evolution, which is a collection of HHMI’s resources on teaching evolution, put together by Ann Brokaw, a high school biology teacher.  She has collected and organized activities, video clips and lessons into subtopics under evolution, including natural and artificial selection, speciation (how different species develop from a common ancestor), human evolution and classification. In terms of the HSE exam, I think the activities under natural selection are most useful. Among the resources listed here is the short film, The Origin of Species: The Making of a Theory, which dramatizes the story of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace as they separately developed the theory of natural selection. The film comes with a prediction guide as a pre-viewing activity, a during-viewing “fact pattern” activity in which students consider the facts and inferences made by Darwin and Wallace, and a post-viewing quiz on the film. You might follow up with the short film, The Animated Life of Alfred Russel Wallace.

I also want to share the CollectEdNY resources for teaching evolution which we put together for a state-wide teacher leader training.  Please let us know if you try any of these resources in your class and have suggestions for other teachers.

*It also seems possible to teach relevant topics in earth science (plate tectonics and the history of Earth) in the context of evolution, since an understanding of deep time is necessary for both.

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About Eric Appleton

Eric lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn with his wife Nancy and a poodle mix named Nina. He rides a bike to clear his head, but also enjoys long subway rides scribbling numbers in a notebook. Eric has worked in adult ed since '99. He is a founding member of the NYC Community of Adult Math Instructors (CAMI).

4 thoughts on “Deepening our Understanding of Evolution

  1. Eric – I love the idea of a cycle, at least!, on “evolution” – interested in checking out your sources. Is the idea you’ll come up with a “lesson play” of some sort? Keeping tuned! Best,


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  2. Hi Richard – Yeah, that’s the plan. We’re planning to pull together a collection of lessons that others have written along with some of our own. We’re still in the beginning stages, but we’re finding a lot of great stuff that has been written already. For example, here are a few nice activities for teaching natural selection:


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  3. HHMI’s abundance of material covers numerous concepts that prove to be common road blocks for students (such as mitosis and meiosis). The simulations and videos (which include lectures) allow students to tackle the concept from different perspectives and in depth. I highly recommend it!

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  4. This appears to be an invaluable resource, and I look forward to researching its content thoroughly to improve my knowledge and that of my students. Thanks

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