I love biology in general, and evolutionary science in particular. As a biology major in college, I came to understand how evolution truly ties together all branches of the biological sciences. I find great comfort and peace in the concept that we are connected to all of nature, and by extension, to the entire universe. My passion for the natural world has led me to many of our planet’s most beautiful ecosystems, from the deep pockets of Amazon jungle and the grasslands of Africa, to the ice shelves of Antarctica and the coral reefs of Australia.
When I went on to pursue a master’s degree in science education, I maintained my focus on evolution and ecology. But as a middle school science teacher, I often find myself having to teach concepts that are well beyond my area of expertise, such as meteorology and Newton’s laws of motion. During these units, I strive to stay a chapter ahead of my students, learning the differences among a solution, colloid, and suspension, as I go.
I have been a teacher for 25 years, and I know that my experiences are not unique. Middle school science teachers are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades. But it is simply impossible to be an expert in all of science. Competent? Sure. But expert? Not possible. And the difference between being just competent and being an expert comes out when you teach. A few years ago, I found myself team-teaching with an exceptional educator, Mary Martinez. She loved geology and had an extensive rock and mineral collection at her disposal. I learned the intricate wonders of minerals right alongside the children. I had taught this unit many times before, but Martinez’s clear passion and enthusiasm made it seem like new material.
I realized that year that we teach best what we know and love best. Our knowledge of a subject leads to our own enthusiasm for it, and this makes a significant difference in our students’ learning process. Passion is contagious. I should have come to this realization earlier. Early in my career, I was teamed up with one of my district’s shining stars, Patricia Soto. Her passion was teaching, and her focus was on hands-on inquiry. Soto could captivate a room full of eleven-year-olds regardless of the subject matter. Two decades later, I still find myself employing her strategies and echoing her words.
Like the countless teachers who have kindly opened up their file cabinets and generously offered me lesson plans and lab activities, I wanted to provide something meaningful for my fellow science teachers. Science understanding is constantly expanding. It is very difficult for science teachers to keep up with all of the latest research across all of the subject areas they teach. The study of evolution, for example, is constantly reinvigorated by new discoveries from the fields of genetics, development, and paleontology just to name a few. I find it all fascinating and I wanted to share it with my colleagues. Thus, in 2013, I offered my fellow G. W. Carver Middle School science teachers a series of workshops on evolution. The highlight of the sessions was a guided discussion of the wonderful book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, which uses the story of his remarkable discovery of the fossil “fishapod” Tiktaalik to launch into an exploration of shared history and common descent.
In November of 2012, I shared my experiences with Richard Dawkins, a well-known evolutionary biologist. Dawkins intuitively understood the importance of giving the teachers of this impressionable age group the proper tools to teach evolution. He kindly offered to come to my school on December 11, 2014, and speak with teachers from all over Miami-Dade County. For two hours, I interviewed him about the Florida Sunshine State Standards on Evolution and Natural Selection, touching upon all of the fundamentals of evolutionary science.
One of the teachers present approached me after the interview and mentioned that this was exactly the kind of content-intensive professional development experience middle school science teachers needed to confidently cover evolution in their classrooms and fulfill their curricular requirements. This revelation was the cornerstone of the creation of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). The mission of TIES is to familiarize middle school science teachers with their evolution standards through in-person workshops and online webinars. In addition, TIES teaching materials are available for free on the RDFRS website, including ready-to-use presentation slides, hands-on activities, a guided reading, and a corresponding exam. Valuable online resources and recommended readings with student analysis questions are also included.
The first TIES workshop took place thanks to another important collaboration; this time with the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Coconut Grove, Florida. On April 3, 2015, thirty middle school science teachers participated in a daylong workshop that included a presentation of the state middle school standards on evolution, two hands-on activities, and an afternoon session exploring valuable online classroom resources. In addition, the participating teachers left with a USB drive that included two slide presentations, reading assignments, two laboratory activities, and an exam with answer key. Museum scientists shared research on phylogeny and fossils, and provided a sneak peek of future museum exhibits. And, as a most special treat, the participants were able to interact with a silver fox. These foxes are the result of fifty years of artificial selection experiments in Siberia. After allowing only the tamest foxes to breed every generation for fifty years, Russian scientists have created a breed of fox with markedly decreased stress hormone levels. The result is a gentle group of foxes that resemble dogs in both physical and behavioral characteristics. The daylong session was videotaped and is also available free of charge upon request.
TIES hopes to attract educators from across the country to join the Teacher Corps and provide similar workshops in their local school districts. Teachers interested in using our classroom resources or learning more about how to join our TIES Teacher Corps can find more information on our web page.
Within every experienced classroom teacher is a wealth of pedagogical and content knowledge just waiting to be tapped. We are our own best resources.
Bertha Vazquez is the Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. For more information about bringing a similar workshop to your school district or university, please e-mail her at bertha at richarddawkins.net.