November 11, 2020

Lesson Plans

As part of the Darwin Day Roadshow, we are working to develop a collection of evolution-based lesson plans that K-12 teachers can freely download and implement in their classrooms. Lesson plans are designed to feature core evolutionary concepts as well as current research, and to meet learning standards at the state level (NC Essential Standards) and at the national level (Next Generation Science Standards). This collection will be growing, so continue to check back for updates!


Adaptations and Evolution (grades 8-12)

by Amanda Rossillo, PhD Candidate in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University

This lesson plan integrates concepts from evolutionary biology and paleontology to teach students about the adaptations of placental mammals: what they are, how they arise, the three different types of adaptations, and how to identify them from living animals and from skeletons. The lesson focuses on one type of adaptation known as a structural adaptation, and consists of a PowerPoint presentation followed by an activity worksheet. Students will engage with static images and virtual (or printed) 3D models of arm and hand bones of unidentified animals to identify the structural adaptations they see and discuss how they may help the animals survive. They then examine three closely related primate species to determine which hand seems better suited for a particular activity. After the identities of all of the animals are revealed to the students, they reflect on their experiences through the final questions on the worksheet and watch a short YouTube video to learn about how paleontologists address the difficulties the students may have faced. Access the Adaptations and Evolution lesson plan here.


Artificial Selection (grades 3-5)

by Amelia Lawrence, PhD Student in Biology at Duke University, and Rebecca Cook, PhD Candidate in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University

This lesson plan introduces artificial selection in the context of domestication – something with which students are likely already familiar. It utilizes processes such as agriculture/gardening and house pets to describe the ways in which humans interact with plants and animals while artificially selecting preferred traits to pass on to the next generations. A matching activity allows students to explore relationships between cultivated plants and crop wild relatives, reinforcing ideas of artificial selection. These familiar concepts are used as a gateway to briefly introduce natural selection and evolution. Access the Artificial Selection lesson plan here.


Phylogenetic Trees and Fossil Evidence of Evolution (grades 8-12)

by Rebecca Cook, PhD Candidate in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University

This lesson plan integrates concepts from evolution and biomechanics to teach students about phylogeny, common ancestry, and homologous structures. It focuses on the pelvis as a prime example of how anatomy, often in fossil form, can teach us about evolution. This lesson plan consists of a slideshow that reviews concepts of evolution and dives into the basics of phylogenetic trees. It then tests students’ knowledge of how to read phylogenetic trees. The second part of the slideshow gives an overview of pelvic anatomy and demonstrates the importance of the pelvis to scientists in determining things such as mode of locomotion, sex, age, or stature. A classroom activity involves a worksheet in which students engage with 3D models (or images) of pelves to determine the mode of locomotion in mammals and use this evidence to deduce phylogenetic relationships. An extended lecture and activity for advanced learners involves the determination of sex from the hominin pelvis, further highlighting how fossil evidence can help us understand human evolution. Access the Phylogenetic Trees and Fossil Evidence of Evolution lesson plan here.


Under Pressure! Selective Pressures and Natural vs. Sexual Selection (grades 9-12)

by Clara Howell, PhD Student in Biology at Duke University

This lesson plan uses a classroom-wide game and follow-up discussion to illustrate the idea of a selective pressure, as well as several key concepts in evolutionary biology:

  1. Selective pressures can come from interactions with the environment and with other species, among others. These can result in natural selection.
  2. Selective pressures can also come from interactions with members of the same species. When these interactions influence which animals reproduce, it results in sexual selection.
  3. Organisms can have conflicting pressures acting on them at once. For instance, a trait that makes an animal more attractive to potential mates can also make them more visible to predators.
  4. “Evolution,” or how a species changes over time, is the result of many different pressures summing together.

To illustrate these ideas, students will start out as a small bird and make evolutionary “choices” (mimicking the evolution of new traits) for their species. There are 5 rounds to the game, and in each round a coin flip determines what the environment will be for the whole class. Depending on the environment, some animals will survive and reproduce, and some won’t. Afterwards there is a structured discussion about how different types of evolutionary pressures select for different traits. The discussion will also cover the ideas of evolutionary strategies (including specialist vs. generalists), sexual dimorphism, and exaptations (or when a trait that originally evolved under one selective pressure becomes useful for something else). This game can also be customized for the size of the classroom and length of class period. Access the Under Pressure! lesson plan here.