Look Out...Hot Topic Straight Ahead! Introducing Our Evolution Unit

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SWBAT describe their knowledge of evolution, compare different theories about the mechanism of evolution, and interview others about the topic in order to formulate their own big questions about this topic of study.

Big Idea

Get your kids buzzing about this hot topic by asking them to gather, compare, predict, and discuss information through the use of creative scenarios and interviews with their families!

Notes for the Teacher

Every year, students tell me that our evolution unit is one of their favorites.  They are intensely curious about this subject are that they know is considered controversial is some circles and they want to understand the history and ideas that they have only heard about in passing.  

The first piece of the lesson is really a homework assignment that students bring to class but do not complete during class sessions and it consists of a brief written assignment where students discuss what they already know about evolution, interview their parents about their ideas about evolution, and create a list of student driven questions and curiosities about evolution topics.  Since it is not a stand alone lesson, I am including it here with our introductory activity.  

The home interview piece of this lesson is important in order to check in on the classroom climate.  Although evolution ideas are more widely accepted now than in previous decades, there are still some families that are resistant to those concepts and incredibly vigilant about what their students are learning in class.  By giving them an opportunity to speak with their child at home about their ideas, a lot of potentially stressful or negative interactions can be avoided.  I also feel that asking students to write out their own understandings and opinions honors them as young adults with ideas and convictions of their own.  As a teacher, I love the last section of the assignment where students tell me about their questions.  I compile a list by class period and use it for myself as I plan unit lessons so that I can be sure to address each question in some way during the unit, either through a lesson, a Q & A class discussion, a one on one conversation with specific students, or a separate class research assignment.  Overall, I use this home interview and reflection assignment as a way of checking in on their perceptions, knowledge, and interests and with those ideas in mind, I then begin to unpack this complex topic with a simple comparison between Darwin's ideas and those of Lamarck.  

The home interview and reflection Introduction to Evolution Assignment document outlines the assignment in detail.  I typically give students one weekend to complete the work so that they can find time to interview their family.  Student questions contain some consistency over the years and you can see some examples of typical things students ask about on this student questions list I compiled last year.  Hear more about how I use this portion of the assignment to support my unit planning in the short video below!


The Classroom Flow: Sharing Out in Small Groups

15 minutes

1.   Ask students to take out their home interview and personal reflections assignment that is during this class session.

2.  In their lab groups, ask students to discuss the following prompts:

  • What surprised you most about your family interview responses?
  • How well do you feel you understand evolutionary concepts?
  • What are you most interested in learning about during this unit?

3.  Using the spokesperson protocol, allow student groups to share out any part of their conversation that strikes them as especially meaningful/important.

4.  Tell your students that you are excited to read their papers and will be sure to address their questions throughout the unit.  Collect the papers and announce to students that today they will begin to learn about the concept of natural selection by comparing this idea of Darwin's to another very popular competing idea known as 'acquired characteristics.'

The Classroom Flow: Transitioning to Darwin/Lamarck scenarios

20 minutes

1.  Write on the board definition of evolution and tell students that this idea described what people saw in nature (things changing over time).  Under the word evolution, write the phrase, "But how?" and tell them that this was the question of extreme interest to people--not if things were changing, but the mechanism of that change.  

2.  Pass out the Curious scenarios: Darwin vs Lamarck document. Tell students that in each pair, one of them will read Scenario A and the other will read Scenario B. 

3.  Tell students that their job is to determine which scenario relates to the two major mechanisms of evolution under investigation today:  Darwin's natural selection and Lamarck's acquired characteristics.  Show students where to find information about each of these ideas.  Specifically, point out the helpful chart that compares/contrasts the two ideas.

4.  Give students time to briefly read their scenario and discuss in their student pair which scenario connects to which idea.

The Classroom Flow: Putting it all Together Through Classroom Discussion

15 minutes

1.  Ask students who read Scenario A to share out their prediction (Darwin or Lamarck?).  Do the same with Scenario B.

2. Students will typically come to consensus about which scenario matches which mechanism of evolution.  To drive home the fallacy of Lamarck's initially appealing idea of acquired characteristics, ask students if the result of a nose job or a hair dye will get passed on to a person's children.  Why or why not?  Students should be able to easily connect ideas concerning heredity, genetics, and meiosis to answer this question.

3.  Ask students to look at the five follow up questions.  Tell them that they are expected to answer them thoroughly.  Specifically, point out the last question that asks students to come up with their own original scenarios A/B.  Remind students that originality is key and that the format of their writing for each scenario should mirror the writing on the original document.  This student work sample shows the level of expectation for this follow up assignment.

4.  Tell students that tomorrow we will continue to explore the concept of natural selection in greater detail!