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5 Quick Evolution Activities

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Even the most capable students sometimes struggle with the ideas presented that are related to the Theory of Evolution. Since the process takes such a long period of time to be visible (often much longer than a human life span, so certainly longer than a class period), the idea of evolution is sometimes too abstract for students to really grasp.

Many students learn a concept better by performing hands on activities. However, sometimes a topic just does not click right away with students in a science classroom and a short activity to illustrate an idea may be needed to supplement a lecture, discussion, or even a longer lab activity. By keeping some quick ideas on hand at all times, with minimal planning, a teacher can help illustrate many evolution concepts without taking up too much class time.

The following activities described in this article can be used in the classroom in many ways. They can be used as stand alone lab activities, or as a quick illustration of a topic as needed. They could also be used as a group of activities together in one or more class periods as a sort of rotation or station activity.

1. Evolution "Telephone"

A fun way that helps students understand how DNA mutations work is using the childhood game of "Telephone" with an evolution related twist. With minimal preparation for the teacher, this activity can be used on a whim as needed, or planned out well in advance. There are several connections in this game to different parts of evolution. The students will have a good time while modeling the idea of how microevolution can change a species over time.

How this activity connects to evolution:

The message sent through the line in the Evolution "Telephone" game changed over the time it took to reach the final student in the line. This change happened from an accumulation of small mistakes the students made, much like mutations happen in DNA. Eventually, after enough time passes, those small mistakes add up to be large adaptations. These adaptations can even create new species that do not resemble the original species if enough mutations happen.

2. Building the Ideal Species

Each individual environment on Earth has a set of adaptations that are the most favorable for survival in those conditions. Understanding how these adaptations occur and add up to drive the evolution of species is an important concept for evolution education. If it is possible, having all of those ideal traits in one species could greatly increase that species' chances to survive a very long time in that environment and throughout time. In this activity, students are assigned certain environmental conditions and then they must figure out which adaptations would be the best for those areas to create their own "ideal" species.

How this activity connects to evolution:

Natural Selection works when individuals of a species with favorable adaptations live long enough to pass down the genes for those traits to their offspring. Individuals with unfavorable adaptations will not live long enough to reproduce and those traits will eventually disappear from the gene pool. By creating their own creatures with the most favorable adaptations, students can demonstrate an understanding of which adaptations would be favorable in their chosen environment to ensure their species would continue to thrive.

3. Geologic Time Scale Activity

This particular activity can be adapted to take an entire class period (plus more time if desired) or it can be used in an abbreviated form to supplement a lecture or discussion depending on how much time is available and how much depth the teacher would like to include in the lesson. The lab can be done in large groups, small groups, or individually depending on space, time, material, and abilities. The students will draw, to scale, the Geologic Time Scale, and highlight important events along the timeline.

How this activity connects to evolution:

Understanding the process of events through the history of the earth and the appearance of life is a great way to show how evolution has changed species over time. To really put some perspective on how long life has been evolving since it first appeared, have them measure the distance from their point of where life first appeared to the appearance of humans or even to present day and have them calculate how many years that has been based on their scales.

4. Explaining Imprint Fossils

The fossil record gives us a glimpse as to what life was like in the past on Earth. There are many types of fossils, including imprint fossils. These types of fossils are made from an organism leaving an impression in mud, clay, or other type of softened rock that hardens over time. These types of fossils can be examined to learn more about how an organism lived in the past.

While this activity is a quick classroom tool, it actually takes a bit of preparation time on the teacher's part to make the imprint fossils. Gathering the materials necessary and then creating acceptable imprint fossils from those materials may take some time and will need to be done in advance of the lesson. The "fossils" can be used once or there are ways to make them so they can be used year after year.

How this activity connects to evolution:

The fossil record is one of science's great catalogs of the history of life on earth that gives evidence to the Theory of Evolution. By examining fossils of life in the past, scientists are able to figure out how life has changed over time. By looking for clues in the fossils, students can get an understanding for how these fossils can outline the history of life and how it has changed over time.

5. Modeling Half-Life

The traditional approach in the science classroom to teaching about half-life usually includes some board work or work with a pencil and paper to calculate the half life and how many years go by using math and a chart of known half-lives of certain radioactive elements. However, this is generally just a plug and chug "activity" that does not click with students who may not be strong in math or able to grasp the concept without actually experiencing it.

This lab activity does take a bit of preparation since there needs to be quite a few pennies available in order to properly do the activity. One roll of pennies is enough for two lab groups to use, so obtaining the rolls from the bank prior to needing them is the easiest route. Once the containers of pennies are made, they can be kept year after year if the storage space is available. Students will use the pennies as a model of how one element ("headsium" - the parent isotope) changes into a different element ("tailsium" - the daughter isotope) during radioactive decay.

How this connects to evolution:

Using half-life is very important to scientists to radiometrically date fossils and place it into the correct part of the fossil record. By finding and dating more fossils, the fossil record becomes more complete and the evidence for evolution and the picture of how life has changed over time becomes more complete.

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