When I cover topics like microscopy, we create and observe our own “pond water zoos.” Given a strong background in evolution and the nature of how science works, students then are ready to ask all sorts of great questions about adaptions, competition, and ecological relationships (example: our Microsafari video). When we study human evolution, students can actually follow modern scientists making important discoveries in the field. Letting our students engage in this area of study lets them see evolutionary science in action. For example, the study of Homo naledi (a 300,00-year-old hominin species discovered in a cave in South Africa by Lee Berger and his amazing team) has allowed my students not only to see the fantastic nature of discovery, exploration, and adventure in evolutionary science, but also to see what Berger and his team are hypothesizing and how the team plans to address ongoing research questions. Most importantly, I get to show my students that it is okay that we do not have all the answers and that much of evolutionary science is the tool kit that allows us to build understanding from the bricks that new discoveries provide us. Indeed, the existence of open questions is what makes the study of evolution such an interesting experience as it drives curiosity and creativity of thought.
In addition to letting me teach how science actually works in the modern world, evolution is also enough of an interdisciplinary enterprise that I can easily connect my students to many other fields of study. Within the sciences there are a plethora of connections to geology, chemistry, and physics as well as climate science and oceanography. Beyond the natural sciences, evolutionary studies can connect us to geography, sociology, history, engineering, and art. Just last week, I talked to my students about the emerging coronavirus and they were able to understand how such a virus comes into being, spreads between animals, and then spills over into human populations. They saw that the evolution of this new strain as well as of other viruses (like influenza) has been affected by a mix of geography and land-use patterns as well as sociocultural influences such as how local markets are set up and what they sell. In the span of one class period, evolution helped link a modern disease outbreak to history, and public health decisions, as well as to the more obvious biology of the coronavirus. As this story continues to develop, my students will have a strong basis to better understand what occurs in China and around the world with this novel virus.
When it comes to studying biology, evolution should not be “just another unit” in our curriculum. Rather, it should serve as the loom that weaves together a deep and meaningful understanding of the facts of biology. When we teach our students in this way, they become stronger critical thinkers and more thoughtful scientists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, managers, and perhaps even politicians.