When evolutionary biologist Rebecca Price first started teaching at the University of Washington, Bothell, she quickly realized she had her work cut out for her. She found herself with a course load of five classes per year, and because her students were extremely diverse, she knew she had to find teaching strategies “that worked across generations and across cultures.”
Working within an interdisciplinary program, she “was inspired to be really creative,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘How can I get people to really enjoy learning about evolution?’”
In answer to that question, Price designed a course module called How We Got Here, which engages students in their own research about the evolution of humans. Because of its effectiveness as a teaching tool, it has been awarded the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).
Science’s IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about How We Got Here was published on 21 December.
“We’re trying to advance science education,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “This competition provides much-needed recognition to innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each laboratory module will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed.”
At the start of the How We Got Here module, the instructor shows students a photo of a baby chimpanzee face, which they will note looks very human. They are asked to write their ideas about why humans and chimpanzees look so similar. They then choose their own set of observations and measurements of skull casts of chimpanzees in different stages of development, as well as adult skulls of Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, Australopithecus afarensis, and Ardipithecus ramidus. Using these observations, they reexamine a common misunderstanding of evolution: that humans evolved from chimpanzees.
“I want students to be engaged in conversation, instead of dogma, about evolution,” Price said.
“There were a lot of missing pieces,” she said. “It was really neat to think that Lucy offered one of the puzzle pieces but didn’t complete the puzzle. There was so much more discovery to be made.”
Students at the University of Washington-Bothell studied chimpanzee skulls to learn how to interpret and analyze scientific data. | Image Courtesy of Marc Studer
The exhibit inspired her to become an evolutionary biologist, and by graduate school, she was studying how and why the shapes of sea shells have changed through deep time. Luckily for her current students, Price also got increasingly interested in teaching, finding that working as a graduate teaching assistant helped her research because the large focus required for teaching complemented the detailed focus of research. “I was doing my best research when I was also working as a teaching assistant,” Price said.
She found a way to continue to explore teaching in the SPIRE (Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education) Postdoctoral Fellowship Program at the University of North Carolina. There, she was introduced to a scientific approach to education in which hypotheses are made about what students are expected to learn using a particular teaching method. Actual data determines early on whether the teaching method is effective and, if not, the approach is changed.
In the fall of 2006, Price started at University of Washington, Bothell, where she researches how to best help students understand evolution. She works within Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, where classes are often quite innovative, combining disciplines and approaches. One class that Price teaches, with a colleague who is a dancer, combines biology and dance. During the semester, students learn about choreography and evolution. Their final project? A dance performance about evolution.
Price’s approach to teaching closely follows the path of the research scientist, and in many of her classes, students experience the exhilaration and the frustration of research. “At the beginning of the class, they’re excited, and at the end, they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Price said. “There’s a dip in the middle, though, just like in professional research. Research is hard and frustrating.”
In How We Got Here, from the moment students decide which features they’re going to measure and study on the skull specimens, they’re engaging in an actual scientific process, not learning facts and vocabulary by rote, she said. “Even just thinking about what they are going to measure is a completely different experience than being told what to measure.”
Interestingly, students who doubt evolution or consider themselves creationists are often changed by the course. The number of students who accept evolution increases between the start of the class and the end, and even the students who most doubt evolution change their perceptions somewhat. “I tell them I want them to understand the science,” said Price, adding that a student who was a creationist shook her hand after the class was over, saying that he had been hesitant to learn about evolution but was glad he had.
Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science, pointed to the interactive quality of the module as especially effective when studying a topic like evolution. “With evolution being a controversial subject for some students, the hands-on manipulation and measurements of the skulls help increase student understanding of macroevolution and evolutionary theory.”
Price offers the module to science majors and students in other disciplines, in classes ranging from her dance biology class to a senior class in evolution. She hopes that winning the Science IBI prize and having an essay in Science will allow the module to reach more students.
“It’d be great to take what is a fairly straightforward, inquiry-based lab activity and make it accessible to a lot of people,” Price said. “Small genetic changes occurring at the DNA level have resulted in big changes within our lineage. I want students to be able to trace those changes with their fingers, because that’s where biology comes alive.”
Read the essay, “How We Got Here: An Inquiry-Based Activity about Human Evolution,” by Rebecca Price.
Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.