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How does evolution result in similarities and differences?

Earthword, mealworm,and cricketIn this hands-on, minds-on activity, students learn about the two ways that evolution produces similarities: (1) inheritance from a shared evolutionary ancestor (homologous characteristics) and (2) independent evolution of similar characteristics to accomplish the same function (analogous characteristics).

Students use these concepts to analyze the similarities and differences between bat and squirrel skeletons and between bat and insect wings. In the laboratory investigation, students observe the external anatomy and locomotion of earthworms, mealworms, and crickets. Students use these observations and the concepts they have learned to figure out which two of these animals are more closely related evolutionarily. (NGSS)

Download Student Handout: PDF format or Word format

Download Teacher Preparation Notes: PDF format or Word format

Coronavirus Evolution and the Covid-19 Pandemic

In this analysis and discussion activity, students learn that the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic very probably originated in bats. Students analyze how mutations and natural selection can produce a spillover infection.

Next, students learn how natural selection increased the frequency of a mutation that made the coronavirus more contagious.

Finally, students analyze how mutations contributed to the spread of the Omicron variant and its subvariants.

What is natural selection?

This minds-on, analysis and discussion activity introduces students to the process of natural selection, including key concepts and vocabulary.

In addition, students analyze several examples to learn about the conditions that are needed for natural selection to occur.

(This activity is an expanded version of the first section of the hands-on activity Evolution by Natural Selection.)

Natural Selection and the Peppered Moth

Peppered moths on tree barkIn this minds-on analysis and discussion activity, students interpret evidence concerning natural selection in the peppered moth and answer questions to consolidate a scientifically accurate understanding of the process of natural selection.

The evidence presented includes (1) the results of experiments that evaluated predation by birds on different color forms of the peppered moth in different environments, (2) the genetic basis for the different color forms, and (3) trends in both the environment and the color forms of the peppered moth in industrialized and rural regions in England and the US.

(This activity is very similar to the last section of the hands-on activity Evolution by Natural Selection.)

Evolution of Fur Color in Mice – Mutation, Environment and Natural Selection

Four differently colored miceStudents view a brief video that presents research findings concerning the roles of mutation and natural selection in the evolution of fur color in rock pocket mice.

Multiple-choice questions in the video and analysis and discussion questions in the Student Handout guide students to a better understanding of mutation, environment, and natural selection.

Students learn how the same trait can evolve independently in different populations and how analysis at multiple levels from the molecular to the ecological contributes to a better understanding of evolution by natural selection.

How Eyes Evolved – Analyzing the Evidence

Human eye and octopus eye with lens and retina

This analysis and discussion activity focuses on two questions. How could something as complex as the human eye or the octopus eye have evolved by natural selection? How can scientists learn about the evolution of eyes, given that there is very little fossil evidence?

To answer these questions, students analyze evidence from comparative anatomy, mathematical modeling, and molecular biology. Students interpret this evidence to develop a likely sequence of intermediate steps in the evolution of complex eyes and to understand how each intermediate step contributed to increased survival and reproduction.

The Teacher Notes suggest additions to the Student Handout that can be used to introduce concepts such as the role of gene duplication in evolution and/or homology and analogy. 

Evolution and Adaptations

Sketch of ocean ecosystemIn common experience, the term "adapting" usually refers to changes during an organism's lifetime.

In contrast, evolutionary biologists use the term "adaptation" to refer to a heritable trait that increases fitness.

To help students reconcile these different concepts, this activity introduces the concept of phenotypic plasticity (the ability of an organism to adapt to different environments within its lifetime).

Questions guide students in analyzing how the balance between the advantages and disadvantages of a characteristic (e.g. an animal’s color) can vary in different circumstances, how phenotypic plasticity can be a heritable trait that can optimize fitness in a variable environment, and how natural selection can influence the amount of phenotypic plasticity in a population.

Resources for Teaching and Learning about Evolution

The Teacher Notes in the attached files provide (1) suggestions for teaching evolution to students with religious concerns, (2) a review of major concepts and common misconceptions concerning natural selection and recommended learning activities, (3) recommended activities for students to analyze and understand the evidence for evolution, and (4) recommended general resources for teaching about evolution.

Using Molecular and Evolutionary Biology to Understand HIV/AIDS and Treatment

Structure of HIVThis analysis and discussion activity introduces students to the biology of HIV infection and treatment, including the molecular biology of the HIV virus lifecycle and the importance of understanding molecular biology and natural selection for developing effective treatments.

The questions in this activity challenge students to apply their understanding of basic molecular and cellular biology and natural selection and interpret information presented in prose and diagrams in order to understand multiple aspects of the biology of HIV/AIDS and treatment.

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