Evolution: Weaving a Tapestry of Scientific Understanding

Evolution should be the "loom that weaves together a deep and meaningful understanding of biology" for students, writes NCSE Teacher Ambassador John Mead.

NCSE Teacher Ambassador John Mead with students

When I tell people that my sixth-grade life science course is based on evolution, I get some interesting looks. Some of those looks are because most folks think I am certifiable just for loving to teach sixth-graders! However, after they get past that, they are puzzled by the idea that I dedicate much of my teaching to making sure my young scientists learn about biology from an evolutionary framework. Simply put—for me, it’s impossible to imagine not teaching biology from such a viewpoint.

In a world where we now have instant access to information as in no previous generation, I am not interested in my students memorizing a trove of facts. Rather, I want them to have the skill to synthesize how the facts they encounter relate to one other. Evolution allows me to teach students in this manner. Biology is no more a collection of facts than a house is a collection of bricks, wires, glass, and pipes. While each part of a house is important, the sum of the whole requires those parts be connected to each other in a meaningful way. When teaching biology to young scientists, evolution provides the mortar and tools to assemble the facts into a coherent, meaningful body of understanding. This approach lets students naturally ask questions about relationships and processes rather than just regurgitate lists of factoids.

When teaching biology to young scientists, evolution provides the mortar and tools to assemble the facts into a coherent, meaningful body of understanding.

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.

NCSE Teacher Ambassador John Mead
Short Bio

John Mead is primarily a middle school teacher at St. Mark's School in Dallas, TX, but has also taught high school biology. An NCSE Teacher Ambassador, he was named NABT's 2018 Outstanding Biology Teacher in Texas and is the 2019 BSCS/BEACON Evolution Education Awardee. Mead has a lifelong interest in and passion for studying and teaching about human origins and evolution, which has provided him the opportunity to work with Lee Berger, Jane Goodall, and Richard and Louise Leakey. He is currently a member of National Geographic’s MicroAmazon research team to study extremophile life in Peru’s Boiling River.

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