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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.

        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) - Intro activity that poses a question or calls upon prior knowledge

        • Present students with a selection of seven widely different species, including a plant, a fungus, two mammals, a reptile, a bird, and a dinosaur, and have them 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 and 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.
          • LECTURE
            • 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) - Apply content knowledge & skills to problem (guided practice)

            • Revisit the prompt at the beginning of the lesson and instruct students to use the Deep Tree to create a phylogenetic tree for the species that you presented.
          • ACTIVITY
            • Students will use the “Relate” functionality of the 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 can be modified to be a homework assignment or an independent project.

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

          • 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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