Constructing a coherent picture of the multiple complex biological processes involved in evolution is challenging—more so because of how evolution is taught in school. “One of the barriers to students understanding evolution is that we have all these processes that can be involved with evolution, but students don’t learn about them in the same context,” explains Peter White, an Assistant Professor at Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University. He laments that by changing contexts, the continuity of evolution is lost. For example, when students are asked to describe the mechanism connecting a genotype and a phenotype, they may simply draw a Punnett square and maintain that two R’s creates a round pea, with no understanding that the allele symbols stand for genes that code for a protein.
Peter White and his son Quentin.
White is a key collaborator, along with MSU’s Jim Smith and Louise Mead, in the development of ConnectedBio, a joint project with the Concord Consortium designed to teach high school biology as a coherent set of interlinked biological mechanisms. Mouse fur color is just one of many detailed phenomena, from lactase persistence to the impact of toxic algal blooms, that White and his collaborators co-developed in an earlier project called “Evo-Ed.” The ConnectedBio team is taking that work to the next level, making it interactive and relevant to high school students, starting with developing curricular materials on the evolution of light fur color in deer mice.
Not all the steps in the evolution of all traits are known. That’s what makes the Evo-Ed and ConnectedBio curricular materials unique. They focus on traits where evidence connects all the various strands of evolutionary knowledge into one coherent “trait story.” The evolution of mouse fur color, for example, can be traced from mutations in the MCR1 gene to changes in the MC1R protein to changes in the skin cells, and finally to the appearance of a new phenotype, or observable characteristic, in a mouse population.
Originally developed for college students, the Evo-Ed cases immediately drew the attention of high school teachers. AP biology and first year college biology are not that different. In 2016, ConnectedBio took the original case for mouse fur color, which tended to be a passive presentation of material, and added interactive content while revising the material for general and advanced high school biology.
“Our [ConnectedBio] pilot teachers said they loved the online curricular materials because students are actually doing science,” says White. “It’s a good pedagogical approach where students are the ones facilitating their own learning . . . If kids can understand that what we’re showing them is an example of trait evolution, and they can describe it, that is really powerful.”
White has other unusual ways of teaching evolution up his sleeve. Literally. His arms are covered with images depicting evolution. Thomas H. Huxley’s 1863 drawing of the comparative anatomy of humans and apes and Darwin’s phylogenetic tree are on one arm. Various chromosomes and an artistic rendition of Neil Shubin’s Tiktaalik fossil is on the other.
And this isn’t the only very personal perspective he brings to the topic of evolution. Growing up in a conservative Christian family, he was once a self-described “young earth creationist” before he delved into the science of evolution for himself. He brings his story of going from a young earth creationist to being an evolution educator into his teaching. “Any time a student comes to me now and wants to talk about evolution and their religion, I consider that a victory,” he says. “These are deeply held beliefs at the core of people’s identity. It took me a decade and a half to change what I believed. If I can equip students to search for answers, that’s the best we can hope for.”
He’s enthusiastic about ConnectedBio being able to facilitate that first-hand search for answers. “I’d love for students who work through the materials to walk away understanding more about evolution,” says White, “because evolution is a mystery to kids.”