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        NOVA Evolution Lab Lesson Plan

        Explore the evidence for evolution through phylogeny with this lesson plan from NOVA's Evolution Lab. First, students consider and discuss how we understand and organize the biodiversity that exists on Earth. Students are then introduced to phylogenetic trees and practice building them with the Build a Tree interactive. In Build a Tree, students use both morphology and DNA analysis to identify relationships between species. Next, students explore speciation and shared ancestry with the Deep Tree interactive. As an interactive tree of life, Deep Tree helps students understand evolutionary history on Earth. Discussion questions and video quizzes allow educators to assess student understanding.

        Lesson Summary

        Everywhere you go on this planet – on land, underground, in the air, and in the water – you’ll find life that has been shaped by evolution. In NOVA’s Evolution Lab, students explore the evidence of evolution through the lens of phylogeny, the study of genetic relationships among species. The Evolution Lab contains two main parts:

        • Build A Tree: Students build phylogenetic trees themed around the evidence of evolution including fossils, biogeography, and similarities in DNA. Students use both morphology and analysis of DNA sequences to identify relationships between species and organize species and traits into phylogenetic trees. Along the way, students watch seven videos that introduce the missions and give context for how the theme of each mission helps us understand how evolution has shaped life on Earth. 
        • Deep Tree: Students explore an interactive tree of life and trace the shared ancestry of numerous species. The Deep Tree helps students understand the scope of deep time and the points at which speciation occurred throughout evolutionary history on Earth.

        Students will complete the Evolution Lab with an understanding of how to build phylogenetic trees and the evidence for evolution. The Evolution Lab is best used as an introduction to an evolution unit, and students should possess prerequisite knowledge of the structure of DNA in order to complete several of the missions.

        Time Allotment

        1.5 hours for Build A Tree game; 4 hours for entire Evolution Lab lesson plan with worksheets

        The Evolution Lab is designed to be implemented in a teaching unit over the course of several class sessions. Teachers should allot about 3 hours to complete both the game and the worksheets. The missions must be completed in chronological order.

        NOTE: The Deep Tree is an open-ended activity with no time commitment.

        Learning Objectives

        Content Objectives

        • Students will be able to describe the key mechanisms by which evolution occurs. 
        • Students will be able to explain the evidence for evolution via the fossil record, DNA, and biogeography.
        • Students will be able to describe specific examples of evolution case studies, such as the evolution of birds, whales, and humans.
        • Students will be able to cite applications of phylogeny in health and medicine.

        Process Objectives

        • Students will be able to build and analyze phylogenetic trees.
        • Students will be able to identify patterns of shared ancestry via the Deep Tree.


        • The Evolution Lab is accessible on web and mobile browsers that support HTML5.

        Students are encouraged to login via a PBS, Gmail, or Facebook account in order to save their progress. Students can quickly create a PBS account using their email address and a password.

        • Optional: medium sized poster boards, art supplies, and printer for lesson plan activities.

        Alternatively, students can also use PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or other digital presentation software for the lesson plan activity.


        These worksheets contain questions for each level and video of the Evolution Lab and provide assessment on topics like cladograms, fossil evidence of evolution, DNA and genetics, biogeography, applications of phylogeny to health, and human evolution. The worksheets are divided into missions and are designed to be completed while playing through the game. The worksheets feature multiple choice questions, short response questions, and cladogram drawings.

        Learning Activities

        This lesson plan was written in the 5-E format, a lesson plan model for guided inquiry in science classrooms.

        Engage (15 min) - Introductory activity that poses a question or calls upon prior knowledge

        • Before launching the Evolution Lab, present students with a selection of seven widely different species, including a plant, a fungus, two mammals, a reptile, a bird, and a dinosaur. Choose these species from the "Species" tab in Deep Tree. Instruct students to independently answer these questions:
            • If you were to organize these organisms into a family tree, what methods would you use to categorize them? 
            • List some examples of traits that you would use to categorize the organisms.
            • Encourage students to share their responses in a group discussion.
            • Prompt students to think about how we make sense of the biodiversity that exists on Earth and how we make connections between all the species that have ever lived on Earth. Show the following video:
          • VIDEO
            • What are the two key ingredients for natural selection?
            • Why does survival of the fittest not mean that the strongest or biggest survive? Can you think of examples where not being strong and big is an advantage?

         Explore (60-90 minutes minimum) - Students explore a hypothesis & collect data

            • Instruct students to complete the six missions of the Build A Tree game. Instruct students that they will explore the evidence for evolution and how we can use phylogeny to understand the relationships between species.
          • ACTIVITY
            • Instruct students to complete the Evolution Lab worksheets or interactive lessons as they play through the Build A Tree game. NOTE: The interactive lessons are online versions of the worksheets and contain the same questions.
            • These worksheets and interactive lessons are designed to be completed while playing through the Evolution Lab game and contain multiple choice and free response questions for each video and level of the game. Instruct students to read the instructions for every page and answer the questions after watching the video or completing that specific level of the Build A Tree game.
            • Students will have to refer to the completed tree and the species comparison tab of every level when answering all of the questions, so remind them to keep the level open while answering the questions.

        Explain (15 min) - Direct instruction & content delivery

            • Summarize the evidence for evolution via a lecture, class discussion, and/or analysis of case studies. For example:
            • Natural selection — explore case studies of adaptations produced by natural selection, such as camouflage and mimicry
            • Fossils — explore the process of radiometric dating and Earth’s evolutionary history timeline 
            • DNA — explain the source of genetic variation and mutation in organisms, how that affects morphology, and how we can use clues in embryology to understand evolutionary history
            • Biogeography — describe how processes like gene flow and genetic drift can drive speciation

         Elaborate (25 min) - Direct instruction and content delivery

            • Instruct students to use Deep Tree to create a phylogenetic tree poster or digital presentation for the seven species that you presented in the introductory activity.
          • ACTIVITY
            • Instruct students to use the “Relate” functionality of Deep Tree to identify the shared traits of the seven different species and build a phylogenetic tree that highlights their relationships to each other. This activity should culminate in a poster board presentation of the phylogenetic tree or a digital presentation in the form of a PowerPoint. This activity can also be completed as a homework assignment or a scaffolded as a longer independent project if students analyze additional species.
            • Scaffold the activity for younger or lower performing students by instructing them to work collaboratively to build their phylogenetic tree. Feel free to modify the number of species that students use to create their phylogenetic tree poster or digital presentation.

         Evaluate (20 min) - Formal assessment (independent practice)

          • This part of the lesson can be integrated into the completion of the Evolution Lab worksheets while students are playing through the game. Students can complete the video quizzes for a quick overview of the content. The Lab Report functionality on the NOVA Labs homepage allows students to track their completion of the video quizzes and print out a record of it.
          • Educators should also use this opportunity to assess student learning with short response or essay questions summarizing the evidence for evolution and analyzing phylogenetic trees.
          • Outline how natural selection is a driving force of evolution in the example of the polar bear.
          • Summarize Darwin's contributions to our current understanding of evolution.
          • How does the use of DNA analysis help us better understand evolutionary history?
          • Describe some applications of phylogenetics to health and medicine.
          • Why is the tree of life a useful analogy to understanding the history of life on Earth?


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