Evolution Readiness

Evolution ReadinessFourth-grade students learn Darwin's model of natural selection using computer-based models depicting interacting organisms and their environments. Curricular activities involve formative assessment, labs, and multimedia materials.

By combining advances in educational technology with improved understanding of young children's cognitive development, the Evolution Readiness project is producing an empirically validated curriculum for introducing evolution in the elementary grades. We are using computer-based, manipulable models of interacting organisms and their environments to help fourth grade students learn Darwin's model of natural selection as the process primarily responsible for evolution.

Evolution is a particularly daunting subject to teach and to understand. The evidence for it is indirect and the model rests largely on phenomena that cannot be directly observed, including some that are poorly understood to this day. With our attention focused on fourth graders, we aim to achieve "evolution readiness"–a state of understanding that can prepare a child to learn more in the next phase of a carefully sequenced learning progression.

A full understanding of evolution would require the acquisition of a detailed model of how information is encoded in DNA, interpreted in cells, and manifested in organisms and species. To understand the evidence presented by the fossil record and its implications for evolutionary theory would require an appreciation of the immensity of geologic time, as well as a substantive introduction to geology and paleontology. These topics are not easily accessible to ten-year olds. However, given a computer model with which to experiment, even very young children can explore the connection between the interdependence of species and their remarkable adaptations, coming to recognize the latter as the surprising but predictable outcome of a long series of gradual processes involving small differences between parents and offspring.

Our project is creating a research-based curriculum centered on progressively complex models that exhibit such emergent behavior. We log students' actions as they interact with the models, analyzing such performance data to infer the students’ understanding. Our research is helping to improve the teaching of complex scientific ideas and to provide a reliable means of directly assessing students' conceptual understanding and inquiry skills, as opposed to their recall of science "facts."

Working in three school districts, located in Texas, Missouri, and Massachusetts, we have implemented a module covering 14 class periods. In each state the elementary science standards include all the concepts we cover–variation of inherited traits, reproductive fitness, and natural selection–but traditional curricula do not attempt to integrate these concepts or to use them to explain observations of the natural world. We tested students who had used our materials and compared them to a baseline cohort taught by the same teachers but exposed only to the traditional curriculum. In each case, our students outscored the baseline students, demonstrating the feasibility of teaching fourth graders the fundamental concepts behind the theory of evolution.

Principal Investigators

Paul Horwitz
Laura O'Dwyer

Project Inquiries


Project Partners

Boston College

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Evolution Readiness Screen Shot

Students plant seeds in the Virtual Greenhouse and observe what thrives under different conditions.

Activity Spotlight

Variations and Adaptations

Variations and Adaptations

Students determine how climate can affect ecosystems.

Learn More
National Science Foundation (NSF) Logo

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0822213. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Project Goals

The goal of our research is to develop a series of computer-based hyper-models to help elementary students understand variation and heritability. These are prerequisites for understanding a central standard in life science curricula nationwide, namely evolution. The purpose of the hyper-models is to help students as they:

  1. Move from reasoning about single organisms to reasoning about populations.
  2. Move from thinking about populations in an environment to recognizing that each population’s environment is composed of other interacting populations.
  3. Recognize the importance of physical and behavioral variation among the organisms in a population and its effect on fitness.
  4. Understand that some of the variation within populations is heritable.
  5. Understand that over many generations, populations may change as fitter organisms have more offspring and therefore their characteristics become more frequent.

The Boston College-led research focuses on characterizing the extent of students’ understanding of evolution after interacting with the computer-based hyper-models. We also examine the effect on learning outcomes of students’ views regarding the nature of science and scientific inquiry. Pre-intervention measures were collected in spring 2009 from all classrooms. During the 2009-2010, and 2010-2011 school years, subsequent to the implementation of the treatment, post-implementation data (survey and test score data) are to be collected.

Several questions are guiding our research:

  1. Do students who experience the evolution learning progression come to understand the complex web of models and data, observations and experiments that underpin and validate the theory of evolution?
  2. Does the use of the evolution learning progression help students to develop a better understanding of the nature of science and scientific inquiry?
  3. What roles do prior knowledge and knowledge about the nature of science and scientific inquiry play in students’ success in understanding and applying the concepts of evolution?


The Evolution Readiness curriculum addresses our 11 learning goals with several computer-based activities that employ our plant and animal simulations. In addition, we have identified a number of supplemental materials to support student learning. These materials include hands-on games, class discussions, classroom garden projects and reading/writing activities. The learning goals of the Evolution Readiness project fall into the 11 "Big Ideas" listed below. See complete table of learning goals.

  1. Basic Needs of Organisms iExample: different species have different preferred conditions for growth.
  2. Life Cycle - Birth and Death Cycle iExample: plants make many seeds, most of which do not survive. In general, many more organisms die than survive.
  3. Organisms and Their Environment iExample: selection based on water or sunlight can lead a population of plants (not an individual plant) to migrate from one area to another.
  4. Classification of Organisms iExample: plants and animals, mammals and fish.
  5. Inter-specific Differences iExample: rabbits and hawks are very different from each other.
  6. Interactions Between Species iExample: hawks eat rabbits, rabbits eat plants.
  7. Intra-specific Differences iExample: organisms of the same species can differ from one another and some may be adapted so slightly different environments than others.
  8. Adaptation/Evolution iExample: organisms carrying traits that are better suited for a particular environment are likely to live longer and have more offspring.
  9. Heritability of Traits iExample: The seeds of plants that are adapted to shade are likely to grow into plants that are also adapted to shade.
  10. Reproduction iExample: Only members of the same species can have viable fertile offspring.
  11. Descent with Modification iExample: Different species can arise from one species if isolated groups are subjected to different selection pressures.

Activity Spotlight

Variations and Adaptations

Variations and Adaptations

Students determine how climate can affect ecosystems.

Learn More

Evolution Readiness in the News

Teaching Evolution to Fourth Graders. Evolution: Education and Outreach 2013
Our article describing Evolution Readiness in Evolution: Education and Outreach
Evolution Is a Model, Why Not Teach It That Way? 2013
Paul Horwitz's chapter in Multiple Representations in Biological Education published by Springer.
Big Ideas for Little People 2012
Our article in Science and Children. NSTA members can read the article online.
Beginning with Big Ideas: Are Students Ready for Evolution?
Read Big Ideas: Are Students Ready for Evolution? in the fall 2011 issue of @Concord.
Education Week — Don't Teach the Controversy March 1, 2011
Education Week Commentary by Paul Horwitz
The Evolution of Teaching Evolution February 7, 2011
A Hechinger Report on the teaching of evolution.
LiveScience — Physicist Recreates Science of Darwin and Newton in Models December 2, 2010
National Science Foundation interview with Paul Horwitz
Education Week — Efforts to Improve Evolution Teaching Bearing Fruit November 16, 2010
Education Week's article about the Evolution Readiness project.
Ready, Set, Go Evolution!
Read Ready, Set, Go Evolution in the fall 2010 issue of @Concord.
NSF Discovery — Students Explore Evolution Through Evolution Readiness Project September 2, 2010
National Science Foundation (NSF) article about Evolution Readiness.
Newsweek — Why Evolution Should Be Taught to Younger Kids November 22, 2009
Newsweek featured article about the Evolution Readiness project.
NSTA — Preparing Students to Learn About Evolution
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) wrote a report entitled "Preparing Students to Learn About Evolution."
Tuesday's Lesson: Teaching Evolution to Fourth Graders
Read Tuesday's Lesson: Teaching Evolution to Fourth Graders in the fall 2009 @Concord.
Teaching Evolution with Models
Read Teaching Evolution with Models in the spring 2009 @Concord.

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