Fourth graders at Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School in Randolph, Massachusetts, are using the Evolution Readiness supplement, a computer model for teaching some of the biology concepts they must understand to learn about evolution. Photo by Paul Horwitz.
A National Science Foundation-funded project has created a computer model for teaching fourth graders some of the biology concepts they must understand to learn about evolution. The Evolution Readiness (ER) project is working with school districts in Massachusetts, Missouri, and Texas to evaluate how students learn with this model.
Paul Horwitz, ER principal investigator (PI), has had years of experience developing and working with “computer models of complicated things that are hard to teach.” Horwitz, a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit education research and development organization in Concord, Massachusetts, says evolution “is a very hard idea to teach,” particularly to “very young kids” who often can’t comprehend “at a deep level what takes place over millions of years.” Because of this, few elementary teachers choose to cover it, though the basic concepts of evolutionary theory appear in national and state science standards.
“Much too often in elementary school…science is taught as a series of facts,” he says, while “more important things” like “models, theories, and explanations are not taught.” The ER project “is not about just teaching the ‘what’ questions. It’s about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions…That’s what science is about; it’s not just doing observations. Scientists worry about the ‘why’,” he maintains.
However, the project is called “Evolution Readiness” to acknowledge fourth graders can’t be expected to understand evolution to the degree scientists do, he explains. In creating the computer model, Horwitz says he and his team decided to leave out “parts of the evolution story” kids would find difficult to understand, such as “the big picture of how all species have a common ancestor.”
ER gives students “a virtual environment they can populate with different species of plants and animals. They can then conduct experiments in which they alter the environment. If the changes are too abrupt, the ecosystem will collapse, but if they are gradual, the plants and animals will evolve, over many generations, to adapt to different habitats,” states the project’s website. The goal, says Horwitz, is for students to have a “pretty good understanding of the mechanism of evolution:” natural selection.
In ER, “everything a kid does is logged,” he points out. “This not only enables the computer to react in real time to the students, but also provides valuable feedback to the teacher. By tracking the students’ actions, the program is able to recognize patterns and make inferences concerning their understanding of the subject matter, as well as their inquiry skills. For example, if the students have been given the task of planting virtual seeds in different locations in order to determine where different varieties of plants fare best, the computer can check to see whether their testing is systematic and exhaustive, or whether they appear to be planting seeds more or less at random.”
But Horwitz emphasizes the curriculum is “not all about computers and technology. The technology in ER serves as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the life science curriculum and videos and other materials that don’t require computers.”
The Concord Consortium is partnering with researchers from Boston College (BC) for the project. BC researchers will “look at the impact of technology-based interventions on student outcomes,” explains ER co-PI Laura M. O’Dwyer, assistant professor in the BC Department of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation and senior research associate in its Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy. Her team will examine students’ gains in content knowledge and scientific inquiry skills.
O’Dwyer believes ER will also boost elementary teachers’ content knowledge and “strengthen everything they do in science.” Teachers will be able to show students “how to use evidence to come up with theories.”
Introducing the Model
Professional development to introduce teachers to ER included a three-day summer workshop at the Concord Consortium and an ongoing online course. Horwitz plans to add a refresher workshop in evolution for the Missouri and Texas teachers because he realized the Massachusetts teachers—the first to use ER—needed help integrating it.
Last year—the first of ER’s three-year study—students in the three states were “exposed to fourth-grade science content that meets state standards” but not to the ER supplement, says O’Dwyer. This year, students will use the ER model and learning activities, and their efforts will be compared with those of last year’s students. Her team has created an evolution concept inventory, a “test consisting of open-response as well as multiple-choice questions that teachers can administer to kids to see what they know about this particular concept,” she explains.
Students are currently doing guided-inquiry activities involving plants, not animals, because plants are simpler to understand, says Horwitz, adding “it’s by no means trivial” for fourth graders to grasp “that when plants reproduce, their offspring are not all identical, and some are more adapted to their environment than others. Over many generations, that’s enough to drive evolution,” he points out.
Initially Horwitz and O’Dwyer were worried students would be bored studying plants, but “they absolutely love it,” says O’Dwyer. While the number of participating teachers has dropped from 12 to 10, she says “the teachers are very positive.”
Some students’ parents were less enthused, says Horwitz, and refused to sign consent forms, indicating they didn’t want their children’s data included in the project. The researchers are complying with their wishes, but the evolution curriculum, which O’Dwyer points out “is not going outside of state standards,” will still be used in the classes implementing ER this year.
“We are not promoting a belief system,” says Horwitz. “Our goal is to help kids understand natural selection as a mechanism for evolution, whether they believe in it or not.”
Teachers can learn more about the project, set up classes, and run the activities at http://er.concord.org.