In the Classroom: Evolution is Elementary!

Nikita Daryanani is a summer intern at NCSE. She recently graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning, and is interested in global climate change and environmental justice.

Last week, Minda went to the National Education Association meeting in Florida to represent the science of evolution in response to several creationist booths at the conference. While there, she ran a giveaway for the not-yet-released Grandmother Fish, the first book for elementary school kids on evolution. She figured she might get a few interested teachers, but a huge number signed up to win! This was a surprise to everyone, and got me thinking: if elementary school teachers want to address evolution in their classroom, what resources are out there for them?

So, I set out on a quest to find evolution-related activities, materials, games, and lesson plans designed specifically for elementary school students. The detailed specifics of evolution are generally not taught in K-5 (usually this is saved for the middle and high school years), but that doesn’t mean that the foundations for understanding evolutionary processes can’t be laid out. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find a lot, but I found a few items—and they were absolutely fantastic!

The first one comes from Tyler Rhodes, a former animation student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was showcased by Scientific American. Rhodes drew a salamander-like creature for a group of elementary school kids, and then had the class make copies of his sketch, knowing that these copies would be slightly different from his own. He then “killed off” 98% of the creatures and started the process again with the ones that survived. He also threw in environmental events such as volcanic eruptions and desertification, and asked the class to decide which animals were best suited to survive in these conditions. He used the drawings to create the animation below that shows how the different “generations” change over time. This lesson got students thinking about the ways in which species can evolve over time and how they can differ based on the environment.



The next lesson, from the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), uses beans to demonstrate natural selection and predator/prey relationships. In this lesson, prey animals are represented by different colored beans scattered on the floor, and students play the role of predatory animals (grrr!) picking up as many as they can. The procedure is then repeated outside on the grass. Afterwards, the students discuss the differences between the number of beans collected on the floor and the lawn (where were they better hidden and why), and talk about how this could apply to animals in the wild.

The last activity I found (also from the UCMP) is about the relationship between species. During this lesson, students are given cut-outs of vertebrates, mammals, birds, and marine creatures, and asked to group them according to how they look. The activity allows students to take on the role of scientist to decide which species share characteristics and therefore are most likely related—yes a simplification of what scientists really do, but a good start! Of all the lessons, this one in particular would be a good match for Grandmother Fish, as the book has a wonderful graphic that shows the ‘tree-like’ process of evolution that can get students to think about adaptation and how all living things are, in one way or another, related.

Are you a K-5 teacher? How do you discuss evolution in your science classroom? Have you used any of these activity before? What resources do you use to help?