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Spring 2012 Vol. 12 Number 1

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Helping Teachers and Students ‘Think Evolutionarily’


A new initiative from the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council is trying to engage the life sciences community in finding ways to teach evolution across the life sciences in upper-level high school and introductory college biology classes. The aim is to help students understand that evolution isn’t just a single, isolated subject but a fundamental and integrating principle of modern life science. As biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The initiative kicked off with a colloquium held last October.

Right now, evolution is often treated in curricula and public debate as a discrete topic that can be segregated and even plucked right out of the curriculum. Robert Pennock from the University of Michigan, who presented at the fall colloquium, cited an instance of a school superintendent who decided to remove a scientific explanation of the beginnings of the universe by gluing two pages of a textbook together so that the section couldn’t be read.

That technique of eliminating a controversial topic shouldn’t be possible with evolution if it is taught correctly, said Pennock. “[Evolution] should be seen everywhere, it shouldn’t be relegated to a particular section that can be glued together.” Evolution is relevant to a host of subjects, from medicine to pest management to forensic science, he said, and explaining that can help hook students and get them to understand evolution’s broad reach.

©moodboard/CorbisHow can instructors get students to “think evolutionarily”? Presenter Gordon Uno said that when students are presented with a new structure or process in biology, teachers should ask questions that might frame the content in a different way: “How did that evolve?” for example, and “Is that the same in all organisms?” Evidence about evolution can be presented at the same time that other content is presented.

Since the convocation, a working group has been planned with the goal of creating a web database of materials to help biology teachers integrate evolution into their courses. The initiative also hopes to offer guidance to authors and publishers of biology textbooks and curricula, to help them integrate evolutionary principles in their products.

Presentations and more information about the fall conference can be found at   -- Sara Frueh

Thinking Evolutionarily: Evolution Education Across the Life Sciences -- Summary of a Convocation. Planning Committee on Thinking Evolutionarily: Making Biology Education Make Sense, Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2012, 86 pp.; ISBN 0-309-25689-6; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $36.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies;).

The chair of the committee was Cynthia M. Beall, S. Idell Pyle Professor of Anthropology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. The study was supported by the National Academy of Sciences, and grants from the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation, Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, a grant from the National Science Foundation to Oklahoma University, and the Carnegie Institution for Science.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences