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5 Ways to Make Evolution a More Approachable Topic to Students

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster

Introduction: Evolution

Words like “evolve, evolving and evolution” are commonly heard in day-to-day life. ‘You have evolved so much since I last met you’, ‘their business evolved immensely over the past decade’, ‘we all should evolve as we grow old and gather more experience of life’, and so much more. In layman’s language, evolution is equated to growing wiser with time and age. But, the term evolution is used in an entirely different context when it comes to Biology.

Evolution is the process of change in a population of organisms over many generations. So, basically you and I can’t evolve in our limited lifetimes. It is something that takes several generations for a taxonomic species to evolve. We can’t even say that we are more evolved than our great-grandparents because the timescale at which evolution is measured is quite longer than one thinks it is.

Students are introduced to evolution in the form of “human versus ape debates”. In the beginning, we tend to believe that we have directly evolved from apes. But apes encompass a variety of biological organisms like chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas and gibbons. Can you guess which one of these ape species are we more closely related to? From which of these apes have we evolved? Any ideas or opinions??

Some people often like to make jokes that we all have evolved from monkeys. But monkeys and apes are very different. Baboons, capuchins, macaques, tamarins and marmosets comprise the ‘monkey group which has striking dissimilarities from the ‘ape group. So, now who do you think are human beings more closely related to; monkeys or apes?

These are the types of questions one should ask when learning about evolution. So, we understand the breadth of this subject and the details entailed in it can be a lot for teachers to squeeze in a single class. That’s why we have compiled resources and tools that educators can use to deliver a flawless lecture without having to compromise on quality.

We list the major problems encountered by students while learning about evolution and biological life. We also list some practical solutions that you can employ in your next class to resolve those issues. By the end, we’ll share why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

3 reasons why Evolution can be tricky to teach or learn

There are 3 reasons why students are overwhelmed by the topic of Evolution. Acknowledging these blocks is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. Too many misconceptions

There are too many misconceptions that hover over the topic of evolution. Some of the common ones amongst all students are: “Evolution is just a philosophy. It happens only in human beings and not in any other biological organism. Human beings evolved from modern-day monkeys. Evolution and God are oxymorons. One can’t find any real-life evidence of evolution. Evolution works at an individual level and we all evolve to adapt to our surroundings all the time. Evolution occurred in my great grandfather but now it’s ceased. Evolutionary theories were formulated to defy God and religion”.

And there are many more such misconceptions that continue to exist among the masses and have found their way to our young science learners. We need to cater to them!

2. Too many novel concepts and ideas 

When students are introduced to the idea of evolution, it comes along with several new terminologies, theories and concepts. Students kick off their learning journey about evolution with a lot of trepidation and why won’t they; it’s full of details. Topics like the ‘tree of life’, ‘phylogenies’, ‘Hardy Weinberg theory’, ‘molecular evolution’, ‘variations versus mutations’, ‘different types of phylogenetic trees’, ‘evolutionary distance and divergence’, ‘hierarchy of taxa; family, genus, species’, ‘basic mechanism of evolution’, ‘use of molecular data from DNA and proteins to trace evolutionary relationships’, ‘natural selection versus genetic drift’, ‘allelic versus genotypic frequencies’, and so many more can be a lot for students to grasp at once. Students are often seen struggling to make sense of these terms.

3. Carries no real-world utility

Many students shy away from learning about evolution because of their unawareness of its manifestation and occurrence in the real world. Most of the time, lessons on evolution are too theoretical and teachers and educators miss out on quoting some relatable and easily understandable examples. Moreover, students have nuances and hard questions that are usually not catered to quite well in conventional classroom teaching due to the lack of visual tools or resources at the teachers’ disposal. A lack of interactive simulations, quizzes, visual tools, and games can make the evolutionary concept too conjectural.

5 ways to make Evolution a more approachable topic to understand

To address the blocks encountered while teaching Evolution, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but they will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Start with the prerequisites and preliminary topics

There are several topics where students can falter while learning about evolution in conventional classroom teaching. We recommend teachers talk about those topics in classroom discussions. You should entertain opinions and open colloquiums where students don’t hesitate to vocalize their notions. This is a time-tested way to teach evolution efficiently to high school and university/college students. We list a few topics that you can prompt in the discussions.

  • Difference between Variation and Mutation

  • Different mechanisms of evolution (Natural selection versus Genetic Drift versus Gene Flow)

  • Difference between the Bottleneck effect and the Founders effect

  • Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium

  • Different theories of evolution (Darwinism vs Lamarckism vs Neo-Darwinism vs Mutation theory)

  • Different evidence of evolution (Anatomical vs Fossils vs Biogeographical)

  • Population Genetics and Hardy Weinberg Principle

These are some of the core topics on which the foundation of evolutionary biology is built. You can use the Evolution: Founding theories and principles simulation from Labster to explain these basic topics. Holding discussions and gathering students’ indulgence can pave the way for active and critical thinking about how each of these factors and mechanisms contributes to evolution. This will also help in preventing the reinforcement of the misconceptions about evolution that pervade most students, as discussed earlier. 

Evolution-Founding theories and principles Virtual Lab

Figure: A snippet from Evolution: Founding theories and principles simulation from Labster where your students can engage in a small game as they learn about evolution. Full simulation is available for High School and University/College classes.

2. Introduce them to the new technological advancements to trace the evolution

Educate your students on how fossils and anatomical evidence were used in the past to trace the evolution of different lineages. Then, introduce them to the advanced techniques of carbon dating and molecular phylogenetics. Theories related to biogeographical evidence and fossil evidence can be tested using data from DNA sequences.

Yes, introduce them to the next-generation tools like molecular phylogenetics tools that use a small piece of biological material from different related or unrelated organisms and precisely inform us about the interrelationships.

Explain the idea of the “tree of life”. You can use the Evolution: Are you related to a sea monster simulation and Evolution: Identifying a deep sea creature simulation from Labster. Using DNA sequences in the virtual lab, you can perform DNA sequencing and build phylogenetic trees to learn about the identity of an unknown creature. You can emphasize the following topics here.

  • DNA extraction and PCR amplification (you can use the PCR simulation by Labster)

  • Running gel electrophoresis (you can use the Gel Electrophoresis simulation by Labster)

  • Basic steps of sequencing and tree building (You can use the NGS simulation by Labster)

  • Use of Bioinformatics in data analysis (you can use the Bioinformatics simulationby Labster)

  • Basics of phylogenetic interpretation (the idea of Homology vs Analogy vs Homoplasy)

Figure: A snippet from Evolution: Are you related to a sea monster simulation from Labster where your students can learn how disasters affect population numbers. Full simulation is available for High School and University/College classes.

3. Emphasize the idea of ‘population’ over ‘individual’

Most common misconceptions about evolution stem from the reckless usage of the terms evolve and evolution in day-to-day life. Educators should not refrain from repeatedly emphasizing the importance of populations as a “unit” rather than a single “individual”.  We list a few ways in which you can cater to this problem.

  • Teach that an individual is not a unit on which evolutionary forces act; they act on populations at a scale of generations.

  • Educate them about the importance of the Hardy-Weinberg Principle.

  • Talk in-depth about the importance of allele frequencies and genotypic frequencies.

  • Talk about how populations ‘evolve’ to adapt to an environment. (Rationale: Since evolutionary forces like natural selection and genetic drift act on “heritable traits” and ‘changes at the genetic level aren’t so common or feasible in an individual’, it is ONLY the populations whose genotypic frequencies change over time leading to an overall change in the allele frequencies in the population’s gene pool.)

  • You can use the Evolution: Generations of an allele simulation from Labster to explain this topic more efficiently. It can prove useful in explaining the concepts of population genetics, the idea of alleles, the Hardy-Weinberg Principle, and more. Your students can virtually engage in a “small evolutionary game” to predict how allelic frequencies change over multiple generations in a population of the 4-legged land-dwelling animal. 

Explore Evolution- generations of an allele Virtual Lab Simulation

Figure: A snippet from Evolution: Generations of an allele simulation from Labster where your students can learn about the Hardy Weinberg principle. Full simulation is available for High School and University/College classes.

4. Explain the importance of studying this subject

Most students are resentful of the subject of evolutionary biology as they find it of less practical applicability. Educating your students about the tree of life becomes important here. To understand the diversity of biological life surrounding us, appreciate their uniqueness and interrelationships, bioprospecting resources and so many more applications, a clear understanding of evolutionary biology is mandatory. 

If one is clear about how evolution works, one can use those principles in several ways. You can use the Evolution: Taxonomic tree of life simulation from Labster to explain how evolution can be useful in real life. Some of the real-life utilities are listed below.

  • To understand the ancestral traits of biological organisms, their past lineages, and their relationships.

  • To predict the future and possible relationships between organisms.

  • To objectively study the biodiversity of the planet. (You can use the Biodiversity simulation by Labster)

  • To deal with the current biological issues that concern us. 

  • To understand how genes behave under evolutionary constraints and their manifestations.

  • To understand how rapidly-evolving microbes and viruses like SARS-CoV-2 hold the potential to bring down highly-evolved human beings to their knees.

Explore Evolution- Taxonomic tree of life Virtual Lab Simulation

Figure: A snippet from Evolution: Taxonomic tree of life simulation from Labster where your students can learn about the tree of life. Full simulation is available for High School and University/College classes.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

We understand that the topic of Evolution is quite an extensive one to introduce to high school students and university students. And we also understand how intimidating it can be for educators to simplify the science behind evolution. This is why we highly recommend using simulations to teach evolution. When students can visualize how evolution works and when they can experience the change that comes over a range of millions of years in a 30-minute classroom session, the topic becomes more interesting and engaging. 

We have a range of simulations on Evolution that cater to the needs of different subtopics. 

  1. Evolution: Founding theories and principles simulation

  2. Evolution: Are you related to a sea monster simulation 

  3. Evolution: Identifying a deep sea creature simulation

  4. Evolution: Generations of an allele simulation

  5. Evolution: Taxonomic tree of life simulation

  6. Evolution: Journey of the canids simulation

With several quizzes, games and interactive tools, these simulations can make the job of educators a little easier. Your students won’t have to struggle as the gamification elements will keep them engaged. By using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”.

Figure: A snippet from Evolution: Journey of the canids simulation from Labster where your students can learn about the allelic frequencies. Full simulation is available for High School and University/College classes.

evolution canids GIF
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