Having spent two summers teaching natural science at Governor’s School West in North Carolina, I’ve absorbed some valuable lessons (that is, beyond how to use high school students’ weird teen slang). These lessons include how to interact with students from a wide cross-section of backgrounds who are united by an interest in science, how to collaborate with instructors who have diverse experiences and herald from various disciplines, and how to spark curiosity in students who mostly have not considered where their interests and passions will lie.
To be honest, I’d never even considered teaching high schoolers before I started working at the Governor’s School. I had spent nearly four years teaching human evolution at a community college before beginning my doctoral studies, and I was sure I would never want to deal with the specific challenges that come with teaching this subject to minors. But this place was different. The Governor’s School spans five-and-a-half weeks every summer, bringing in some of the best and brightest students from all over the state of North Carolina. If ever I was going to dip my toe into secondary school education, this was the ideal (albeit challenging) situation in which to do so.
As it turns out, there’s a lot of good that comes from teaching evolution to a bunch of budding scientists.
A Boost of Creativity from Pop Culture
As I started teaching for the Governor’s School, I quickly realized that, because I was dealing with an incredibly driven and precocious set of students, I was going to have to get very creative. In addition to teaching concepts that I thought were important to their understanding of evolution, I needed to find (sometimes unconventional) ways to encourage true engagement with the material.
One example came from my colleague in microbiology, Dr. Erin McKenney. She was inspired by a major distraction we had in summer 2016: the release of Pokémon Go. Students had their noses in their phones all over campus, and sometimes it was difficult to command their attention…or keep them from walking into each other. So this summer, she had an idea: we should take this viral interest (even if it was a year old at this point) and apply elements of it to some of our courses.
In her class on food and gut microbiomes, she asked students to infer the natural habitat for which their Pokémon might be best suited based on salient morphological features and possible adaptive advantages. Students then brainstormed a list of foods that their Pokemon would eat "in the wild," designed a gut that would help their creature digest its natural diet, and ultimately described their Pokémon's gut microbiome (with help from the published literature). Upon hearing her idea, I issued myself a challenge: how might I incorporate this pop culture phenomenon into a lesson about human evolution?
Thus, a Pokémon phylogenetics activity was born. In all fairness, I am not the first person to ever use this idea - for a very serious (and hilarious) take on Pokémon evolution, see Shelomi et al. (2012). After teaching some basic phylogenetic concepts and giving them some extant primate examples, I gave my students a pack of 20+ Pokémon and charged them with creating a phylogeny of their own based solely on morphology (avid Pokémon fans were instructed to forget whatever they knew about the pop culture sensation, including its erroneous use of the word ‘evolution’ to describe metamorphosis). They were instructed to consider the following phylogenetic concepts:
- ancestral vs. derived traits
- homologous vs. analogous traits
- common ancestry
Some student groups jumped right into the construction of their phylogenies, while some groups debated heavily before putting anything together. The end results were well-thought out, and like real phylogenies had lots of major similarities but differed on some of the smaller details.
While there were certainly challenges to putting together these phylogenies based on morphology alone, those challenges led to a useful discussion on the difficulty of phylogeny reconstruction using the fossil record. Pokémon phylogenies became the primer for them to learn about hominin evolution. Specifically, why is our phylogeny so “bushy” and non-linear? Why does it seem so subjective? How do we hypothesize relationships between species? How do we even define a species?
Evolution for Everyone
Thinking about these issues in relation to humans and their ancient ancestors is something many of my students had not experienced before. It isn’t because they weren’t curious, but rather because the exposure to concepts of evolution in relation to humans isn’t something that happens uniformly in the United States. Even in the same state, their understanding of evolution (particularly human) varied. This has been one of the greatest challenges for me as an instructor, and given the vast professional meeting sessions and literature devoted to the topic, a difficult task for numerous teachers.
For many students, figuring out how to grapple with the idea of human evolution proves to be an ideological challenge, making it one of the most difficult aspects of study in the biological sciences (aside from learning all those Latin nomenclatures, of course). It can be a jarring experience for those who have had almost no exposure to the concept, particularly if it collides with the worldview that has previously structured their lives. This puts instructors in a potentially precarious situation: how do you make an atmosphere that promotes thoughtfulness rather than one brimming with hostility?
This isn’t just a question of teaching style. In many parts of the United States, the atmosphere concerning evolution teems with anger and misunderstanding. The “real world” stakes are high, with some school boards advocating for evolution’s removal from grade school curricula or a watering down of the concept (e.g., teaching it as “only a theory”, which perpetuates a misconception of what constitutes a scientific theory) (Larson, 2009). So what’s an instructor to do?
Starting the Conversation
I no longer feel that I am doing my introductory students any favors by ignoring the fact that a controversy exists, particularly when I teach high schoolers. But introducing the topic has to be done carefully and with a great deal of diligence. There are a couple resources for instructors that I have found to be especially thoughtful in breaking the ice. The first is a learning module from the Smithsonian Institution centered around cultural and religious sensitivity. Specifically, they recommend a discussion of different ways of conceptualizing the world and the role science plays in that understanding. The emphasis here is that people think about the world differently, but that science (specifically evolution) does not inherently have to have an antagonistic relationship with other ways of thinking about the world.
For those looking to address the controversy more directly, Andrew Kramer and his colleagues have completed years of research on the utility of classroom discussions on evolution. In their 2009 research article, “Teaching the ‘E-Word’ in Tennessee: Student Misconceptions and the Persistence of Anti-Evolutionary Ideas,” they describe a method of giving students a platform to discuss their points of view. The authors provide an example of a survey they have used on the first day of human evolution courses, which serves as a starting point for a class conversation about the subject and its potential controversies.
I picked three questions from this survey and used them for the first time this summer. Students were not required to submit it; rather, I used it simply to facilitate discussion about what science is and how evolution fits into biological studies. Students had many suggestions for how to change the wording in these questions, which prompted much discussion on the philosophy of science. It also gave students a way to discuss why some people might have problems with the idea of human evolution, whether it was something they grappled with themselves or not. Question 3 was particularly important to discussing the latter, and it gave students a chance to really think about their own belief systems and their interest in science.
Another major hurdle for instructors is figuring out how to effectively teach evolutionary mechanisms to students with varying background knowledge. Some students enter the classroom with zero exposure to evolutionary concepts at all. How does one teach to these students, but also not completely bore the students who have had an advanced biology course and know (or at least think they know) all the mechanisms well? I do not always hit the right note here, and it is an ongoing struggle. However, it is one that we must at least address.
So what does the instructor do? Do you teach to the students who have no background, or leave those students with a reading to get that information and move on in favor of higher level topics? I tend to lean toward the former. While it is redundant for some of my students, there is another consideration. Some of my students think they know exactly what evolution entails, but in actuality there are considerable misconceptions or gaps in their knowledge. To ensure that everyone is on the same page, I opt for redundancy. In my constantly evolving teaching method, though, I hope to come up with more innovative ways to address this issue, and am open to a conversation with other instructors about how they approach this pedagogical challenge.
When I teach, it is my hope that students realize how crucial this discourse is. Sometimes we have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations to make headway in hostile environments and get to a place where amazing science can be done. On the first day of class, when the natural science students at the Governor’s School are wondering what their role in the program is going to entail, it is also my hope that such a conversation sparks curiosity. While many of them have learned very little about evolution in their traditional secondary education, that doesn’t mean that one of these students can’t be one of the next great researchers in evolutionary biology, comparative anatomy, or quantitative genetics. If given the platform to ask questions and discuss answers, that spark of curiosity could be just around the corner.
 On this page, click the link to downloadable resources. It will take you to a Dropbox, where you will find a folder called “Cultural and Religious Sensitivity (CRS) Teaching Strategies Resource.”
Kramer A, Durband AC, Weinand DC. 2009. Teaching the 'E-Word' in Tennessee: Student Misconceptions and the Persistence of Anti-Evolutionary Ideas. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 29(6):18-28.
Larson EJ. 2009. The Battle Between Creation and Evolution in the Classroom: An Historical Perspective. In: Robbins RH, Cohen MN, eds. Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation. Penguin Academics. p 155-165.