Evolution Research Project

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the basis for his seminal work On the Origin of Species, is an overarching theme in our seventh grade life science course. As a year-end experience, our students complete “The Evolution Project“. This multi-faceted, well scaffolded endeavor includes and combines scholarly research, public speaking, technology, and differentiation into a truly meaningful and memorable learning experience.

Background and Task

To make the project easily accessible and the students’ progress highly transparent, the entire project structure is organized on The Evolution Project wiki. To begin, students are provided the following background and task:

Background: Up to this point in our short study of evolution, you have learned about evolution and how it happens through natural selection. Mutations in DNA and new combinations of DNA from sexual reproduction can lead to variation in the individuals in a species. This variation can be harmful or helpful. If helpful, the organism is left with an adaptation that makes it better suited to its environment, thus increasing its chances for survival against the natural pressures from predators, competition for living space and food, and changes in an organism’s environment.

Your Task: You will choose one of the options below as your final project for the evolution unit. All class time and homework time will be dedicated to completing this project. You will present your project, using PowerPoint, in front of the class, and it will be video recorded and streamed live over the internet for others (like your parents!) to see.

The task options, while focused on evolution, represent three levels of academic challenge. This tiered approach to differentiation allows students to choose the option that best suits their abilities and aspirations.

Option 1: Humans are environmental scientists and conservationists who work to study organisms and the environment in which they live. These professionals try to prevent endangered species from becoming extinct. An endangered species is one that is on the verge of extinction. CHOOSE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES and research the following questions/topics. (“B+” level of difficulty)

  1. Why did you choose to research this species?
  2. Where does this species live and what survival pressures does it experience there?
  3. Which variants within the species might be better adapted to survive the pressures? (This might not be in the research, so you might have to infer it for yourself)
  4. How are environmental scientists and conservationists helping to save the species from extinction?
  5. Service/action component: You do something to help in addition to researching this topic

Option 2. Humans are evolutionary biologists who study how species evolve (when and how they appear, change, or go extinct). They also study how different species are related. CHOOSE A LIVING OR EXTINCT SPECIES and research the following questions/topics. (“A-” level of difficulty)

  1. Why did you choose to research this species?
  2. When did this species appear in Earth’s history?
  3. Describe the environment and adaptations that led to the selection of this species.
  4. Describe the evolutionary history of this species: From what organisms did this species evolve? Who are some of its ancestors? (Use a clade or branching tree in presentation).
  5. What evidence supports the common ancestry or relationships identified in #4?
  6. If extinct, describe the environment/circumstances that led to its extinction. Which organism(s) came next? Or…
  7. If still living, what’s next for this species?

Option 3. Humans are the most powerful organisms on Earth, and we are intentionally and unintentionally interfering with the selection of other species because of our behavior. Just one example is how we develop land for our own use, which can destroy the habitat for other species naturally found there (like with endangered Asian elephant). CHOOSE A HUMAN ACTIVITY and research the following questions/topics. (“A” level of difficulty)

  1. Provide an overview of this human activity: Describe what your human activity is and why humans do it.
  2. Identify some species whose selection is affected by this human activity. Complete the following for each example:
    • Name of species:
    • Location of human interference (if applicable):
    • How is this organism evolving because of this human activity? Or, if no change has been documented yet, predict how these organism(s) might evolve as a result.
    • What evidence shows that this organism is affected by this human activity? Look for data and statistics.
  3. Why should we be concerned by the impact of this pressure? Why should we care?

To help students chose the best option, they are provided possible topics and resources, including a list of human activities that have the potential to drive natural selection:

  • Land Development/Destruction
  • Use of Antibiotics (antibiotic resistance)
  • Use of Herbicides (herbicide resistance)
  • Use of Pesticides (pesticide resistance)
  • Over-Fishing (commercial)
  • Hunting/Poaching
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Selective Breeding
  • Pollution

Once they have selected a task option and specific topic, they begin the research process.

Research Wiki

Each student group is provided a wiki page that outlines the major components of the research process. This approach provides several benefits, including the ability to better facilitate group work, see the contributions of each member, and allow the teacher to provide timely feedback via the Discussion tab. Notice the formative feedback in the example shown below:

In addition to library resources, students are encouraged to locate relevant websites. Each site used, however, must be evaluated by the student using a simple Website Evaluation Form based on the The Big6 approach to research:
Website Evaluation

Visual Aid and Presentation

As a culminating activity and in lieu of writing a traditional research paper, students create an image-based PowerPoint (i.e. minimal text) and present their finding to the class. The presentations are streamed live and recorded via and parents are invited to watch at their convenience. Students complete a peer evaluation for each presentation and are required to view their own and fill out a self-evaluation form. Sharing their work in this way helps develop their sense of audience, and the reflection that occurs as they critique themselves adds a valuable dimension to the experience.

Video streaming by Ustream
Making it Work in Your Classroom

The Evolution Project can easily be adapted to other disciplines and grade levels but there are a few points to consider:

  • Provide Engaging Choices: In general, the research options engaged the students because they were timely and relevant. Students will not invest themselves in something they cannot relate to or care about so the task must be meaningful. Remember: not everyone enjoys your subject as much as you do.
  • Leverage the Wiki: Students appreciate the organization and collaboration benefits of using a wiki. The Discussion tab can be a very powerful tool for monitoring progress and providing feedback, and the History tab provides insight into student contributions. Collaboration does not mean divide and conquer; students must be taught how to work together even when they are apart.
  • Visual Literacy is Important: A formal paper is not the only way to demonstrate knowledge. The visual aids the students constructed required them to have at least a basic understanding of good design and visual literacy. A picture can truly be worth a thousand words.
  • Audience Matters: Streaming and recording the presentations raised the performance bar and helped the students appreciate the concept of audience. Sharing beyond the classroom provides new opportunities for learning; you’ll be amazed how parents, colleagues, and even students will respond.