Many of my preservice teachers cannot name a single living or historic scientist when they begin my class. Their understanding of the nature of science is limited, and they often express support for the idea that fairness requires a consideration of alternative explanations to evolution. They can't explain how a genome (like that of "bird flu") can mutate. In many states, including my own, the discussion and evaluation of evolution has migrated from scientific venues into political realms like state legislatures and contentious courtrooms.
The Virus and the Whale: Exploring Evolution in Creatures Small and Large, from NSTA Press, is a welcome addition to the efforts to explain one of the grandest of scientific theories. Based on a project of science museums and 4-H organizations, the book targets young adolescents. The first three chapters of the book are directed to teachers and treat the science behind the theory of evolution as well as issues surrounding the challenge of teaching and learning the science. Teachers will find these sections useful in building their own understanding and confidence. Seven activities for children (in grades 5-8) follow. Each activity focuses on a particular organism. And alongside each organism, a living scientist and her or his work is presented. Links that accompany the museum exhibit project on which the book is based direct readers to scientists’ own websites.
The aim of the activities is to make sense of the evidence the scientists collect in their efforts to understand life on Earth. They require no more than pencil and paper and copies of the pages. Permission is granted to download copies free from two websites. Many of the activities make use of photographs, drawings, and other graphic images that are then compared, classified, and sorted across time and place. Several activities include game-like simulations based on mathematical models embedded in the “rules.” Each activity culminates with a venture into communication arts, and students are invited to “be a science reporter” and to compose a news story communicating their findings after investigating real evidence that living scientists have actually collected.
Several features of the book make it unique. As the title suggests, the scope of evolutionary theory includes both the very small and the very large. Each example targets a particular piece of evolution from DNA and genetics, to mutation, biogeography, natural selection, sexual selection, co-evolution and symbiosis, the fossil record, human health, and ecology. The array of fascinating examples and the ease with which students can interact with the examples adds great value to the book. The examples that link evolution to current concerns about human health and the environment remove the theory from the misconception that evolution is only about the past. The care and subtlety of evidence and argument in evolution are well-presented and add positively to an accurate view of the nature of science that includes both experimental and nonexperimental research.
The illustrations are not only extremely helpful but also aesthetically attractive. The book definitely belongs in a teacher’s library and the activity pages in an upper elementary/ middle school program. Of course, real experience with living organisms in real environments will add substantive meaning for the children who enjoy the simulations and other paper-and-pencil activities. Care will need to be taken with those few activities that take an “empathetic” or design approach. In those activities the strategy of putting children into the problem (designing a bird’s beak or evaluating a mating call, for instance) makes good pedagogical sense. However, it is also possible that a thoughtful child would confuse the teaching strategy with support for the distractingly nonscientific intelligent design movement. I intend to introduce the book, the examples, and the activities to my preservice teachers. At the least, they will learn something about living scientists and their intriguing objects of study.