A Course On Evolution That Opens Minds
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. Because her students were extremely diverse, she knew she had to find teaching strategies “that worked across generations and across cultures,” notes an article on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:
“Price asked herself, ‘How can I get people to really enjoy learning about evolution?’ She created a course called How We Got Here, which begins by showing students a photo of a baby chimpanzee face. After noting that the face looks very human, Price asks students to write down their ideas about why humans and chimpanzees look so similar.
Then, choosing their own set of observations and measurements to make 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, the students 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 says.
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. ‘Even just thinking about what they are going to measure is a completely different experience than being told what to measure,’ notes Price. 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 says. ‘There’s a dip in the middle, though, just like in professional research. Research is hard and frustrating.’
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,’ says 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.” (Read more here.)
What a great-sounding class. Instead of listening to a professor lecture, these students are exploring the ideas and evidence behind evolution for themselves. And they’re experiencing both the frustrations and rewards of doing real research.