The theory of evolution is widely considered to be one of the most important and groundbreaking theories in science history and essentially underpins all modern biology, from ecology through to medicine. Darwin's theory of evolution explains how all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor. Since the theory of evolution was first presented more than 150 years ago, results from across the life sciences have verified and enhanced details of this theory. There are a multitude of implications of direct societal importance for evolutionary aspects, e.g. antibiotic resistance, emergence of new diseases as well as responses and adaptations to climate change. Therefore, a meaningful understanding of evolutionary theory is essential for many areas of individual, social and scientific life. However, science education research has shown that the theory of evolution presents severe problems to learners, and many teaching strategies have failed or proven to be inefficient to solve them (e.g. Kampourakis & Zogza, 2008). Taking this knowledge into account the aim of our contribution is to propose new ways of teaching, learning and probing understanding about evolution. The first study applies the method of learning with worked examples to learning evolution. Worked examples have been shown to support the understanding of demanding scientific contents as well as of contents in other disciplines by empirical investigations (Chi et al., 1994). Here, worked examples are used in a very differentiated way, i.e. adjusted to the prior knowledge of the students. The second study attempts a new way to explore students’ conceptions of evolution by using student-generated animations. In many studies, students’ conceptions of evolution have been probed using interviews as well as paper and pencil tests, ranging from multiple-choice questionnaires to essays (e.g. Balgopal & Montplaisir, 2009). However, Nehm and Schonfeld (2008) showed that students’ results are strongly dependent on the particular method applied. The second study investigates a new method of exploring students’ conceptions of evolution, i.e. animations, which were generated by the students themselves in a collaborative setting.
Nehm and Reilly (2007) have suggested targeting misconceptions and core concepts as tools for explaining particular evolutionary scenarios. This would be in line with well-established conceptual change theories in science education (Strike & Posner 1992). The third, fourth and fifth study of our symposium is linked to these considerations. They focus on fundamental features of the evolutionary concept, i.e. thresholds concepts such as randomness, probability or spatio-temporal scales, which the authors hypothesize to be necessary to grasp the theory of evolution. The construct of evolution is composed of fundamental abstract ideas. Some of these concepts are in fact contra-intuitive and have to be connected in complex conceptual patterns for a full comprehension of evolution theory. Evolution spans spatial and temporal scales, from the development of life and species over millions of years, to the explanations of events that occur at the cellular and molecular level, and in time scales from microseconds to minutes and hours. Some kinds of visualizations are needed for making these concepts tangible for learners. Thousands of animations, dealing with evolution, are available on the Internet. The third paper presented proposes a criteria catalogue covering multiple evolutionary aspects including threshold concepts for the evaluation of animations meant for explaining evolution. The aim of this study was to map the presence (or absence) of important concepts in dynamic educational visualizations on evolution. By using the developed criteria catalogue, the study elucidates what concepts are focused on in animations, video clips and simulations and whether there are relevant evolutionary concepts in these media that are seldom represented or not represented at all. Paper four goes one step further: the explorative study shows the development and evaluation of a novel interactive visualization application intended to convey key mechanisms of natural selection such as random variation, selection and development over generations. The aim was to investigate students reasoning while working with this interactive simulation application stressing the threshold concept of randomness in the context of genetic variation. The final study presented in this contribution aims to investigate if problems in understanding evolution as well as in the development of misconceptions can be overcome by fostering the understanding of the threshold concept randomness.
Through this contribution, the authors aim to contribute to further development of the teaching and learning of evolution at secondary as well as higher educational levels.
NARST – National Association for Research in Science Teaching Chicago, April 11-14, 2015