Four Fun Ways to Teach Evolution
Professor Ciara Reyes-Ton brings us four ways to engage students with evolution in the classroom, from playing with gummy bears to experimenting with lizards.
Whenever I teach evolution to undergraduate students, I can’t help but think back to my own experience as a student. I was skeptical and uncomfortable learning about evolution, but a Christian professor helped me see evolution in a new light. Since then, I’ve tried to find fun ways to help break the ice and engage my own students.
Over the years, I’ve landed on a handful of games and activities to help destigmatize evolution, disarm defenses, and address common misconceptions. While they are not necessarily faith-based, they can lend themselves well to follow-up discussion questions rooted in faith, given the right context. Many of these activities are designed for grades 7-12th, but I have successfully used them at the college level, mostly in intro-level biology classes geared towards non-science majors. (If you are looking for already established faith-based resources on evolution and other topics, consider checking out the BioLogos Integrate curriculum.)
Importantly, these games and activities should not be done in isolation. A brief video, reading, or lecture should provide proper context and background. The goal is not to oversimplify or reduce biological mechanisms like evolution to fiction or mere fun and games. The goal is to use play as a teaching tool to break down barriers, reinforce concepts, and help students move beyond a textbook understanding. I’ve witnessed firsthand that it’s hard for students to be disengaged on a topic like evolution when they’re having fun. I hope other educators can witness this too!
I’ve witnessed first hand that it’s hard for students to be disengaged on a topic like evolution when they’re having fun. I hope other educators can witness this too!
1. “What Did T-Rex Taste Like?” Activity
If the title alone of this activity isn’t enough to spark curiosity in your students, perhaps it will activate the curiosity of their taste buds! While we could never know for sure what T-Rex tasted like, we can use the tools of science to identify its closest living relative and predict what it might’ve tasted like.
This virtual activity introduces students to the topic of evolutionary family trees. Just like we can use services to learn more about our own family relationships, scientists can do the same thing for all living organisms, including extinct ones like dinosaurs. The activity shows how this is done using genetic and physical traits. We may only be able to trace our own family history a few hundred years back at most. But scientists can generate family trees that track our evolutionary history hundreds of thousands to millions of years!
Access to a computer is required to complete this activity, and simple worksheets can be designed to accompany it. A brief discussion following the activity can be helpful to check student understanding.
Faith & Science Connection:
Consider discussing genealogies in the Bible using resources like “Interpreting Biblical Genealogies,” “How Should We Interpret Biblical Genealogies?,” “Genomes as Ancient Texts,” and “Were Adam and Eve Historical Figures?” For a more general resource on evolution, check out our Evolution Basics series or our podcast series on Reconciling Evolution.
This activity is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
We may only be able to trace our own family history a few hundred years back at most. But scientists can generate family trees that track our evolutionary history hundreds of thousands to millions of years!
2. Gummy Bear Evolution Game
Gummy bears aren’t just tasty treats, but can help show how evolution works! “The Jelly Bear Evolution Game” is a board game with printable parts including a map, cards, and lots of gummy bear playing pieces. Students start the game with a population of gummy bears that they randomly distribute on a map of “Jelly Island,” a fictional island with varying terrain (mountains, deserts, marshes, and forests) and distribution of resources (berries and fish). The goal is to place the bears in locations that will enhance their survival.
Each turn, students draw a playing card from a deck. The cards have various selection pressure and adaptation scenarios that affect different populations of bears on the island. Selection pressures can include disease, natural disasters, predators, and human behaviors (poaching and pollution). An example of an adaptation may include a random genetic mutation that enhances survival, like resistance to a disease.
In my experience, the students typically have a blast playing with the gummy bears; some have even asked to play extra rounds of the game! They tend to like the activity as a break from the monotony of lecture. Importantly, while this game is a lighthearted and fun way for students to understand some of the harsher realities of the natural world, as responsible educators, we do not want to detach our students from the reality of predation, natural disaster, and disease. It is worth talking about this with the students before or after the game. The game is not meant to be taken too seriously, and students get that.
Faith & Science Connection:
This activity can be followed by conversations about natural selection and purpose. Consider discussing articles like “Reconciling Chance and Divine Providence: Three Theological Options” and “Purpose, Evolution, and Self-Replication.” If the students are comfortable and ready, more serious conversations on death and suffering can also be facilitated with resources like: “Is Animal Suffering Part of God’s Good Creation?” and “Did Death Occur Before the Fall?” Also, check out resources by theologian Bethany Sollereder, including her presentation on “Animal Suffering: God & Pain in the Evolutionary Story.”
This activity was created by Oxford, Cambridge and RSA (OCR)—part of the Cambridge University Press and Assessment.
In my experience, the students typically have a blast playing with the gummy bears; some have even asked to play extra rounds of the game! They tend to like the activity as a break from the monotony of lecture.
3. “Race to Displace”—An Invasive Species Game
“Race to Displace” is a simple board game that helps students understand how invasive species can negatively impact ecosystems. Invasive species are not inherently harmful or disruptive. They are well adapted to their native environment thanks to millions of years of coevolution alongside their neighbors. However, when uprooted from their native habitat they can multiply in ways that outcompete native species and even lead to their own demise.
In the game, each player is assigned a plant, but they do not know if it is invasive or native to the environment. As the game unfolds, it becomes clear which are the invasive plants as they tend to grow, reproduce, and outcompete other plants. During the game, students draw cards that guide them through scenarios of competition with other plants and predation. There are also special land management cards in the deck that represent efforts by conservationists to combat invasive species. The player with the largest population of plants wins.
In my experience, students get pretty invested in the well-being and success of their plant. I’ve found it helpful for students to play the game at least twice. The first time students can play it without land management cards, and the second time with those cards. This allows the students to see how conservation efforts can help combat invasive species.
Faith & Science Connection:
In recent years, humans have been called an invasive species. Throughout our evolutionary history we have moved around and settled in areas, often out-competing native species. Conversations about human identity and our responsibility as Christians to care for creation rather than conquer it can be helpful. Brainstorming ways to combat and prevent invasive species from spreading in our local communities can be a good action step as well. For more resources on creation care, check out “Why Should Christians Care for Creation?” and our “Creation Groans” podcast series. You can also visit our Evolution Basics series which covers the topic of coevolution.
This resource was published in “The American Biology Teacher” journal.
Invasive species are not inherently harmful or disruptive. They are well adapted to their native environment thanks to millions of years of coevolution…However, when uprooted from their native habitat they can multiply in ways that outcompete native species and lead to their own demise.
4. Virtual Anole Lizard Lab
Anole lizards are beautiful reptiles that range in color and size depending on the species and their habitat. They are well adapted to their environments thanks to countless years of coevolution. Scientists have studied populations in the Caribbean where more than 700 islands house over 150 species of anole!
While it would be nearly impossible for students to study these lizards in their natural habitat, the “Lizard Evolution Virtual Lab” brings the lab to the classroom. Students get to work with real data collected by scientists and help analyze it. In one activity students measure the tail and foot length of various anole species to compare them. In another activity, they examine dewlap colors, and in another they count lamellae on toe pads! The lab is also accompanied by a few videos, worksheets, and discussion questions.
While the lab and activities are delivered in a very accessible way, there are still some technical details that make this activity better suited for science majors rather than non-science majors.
Faith & Science Connection:
Scientists are currently trying to understand how humans might impact coevolution in harmful ways through climate change and the introduction of invasive species. Consider conversations about how human actions impact coevolution and how populations of organisms like the anole lizard may be affected. Conversations about our Christian responsibility to care for creation and protect the biodiversity of organisms on our planet, like the anole, can be fruitful ways of engagement.
This activity was created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Biointeractive.
Anole lizards are beautiful reptiles that range in color and size depending on the species and their habitat…Scientists have studied populations in the Caribbean where more than 700 islands house over 150 species of anole!
My Hope as an Educator:
As an educator, it is important to remember that learning and changing minds is a process. We can only hope that our students will leave our classrooms with a more accurate understanding of the natural world, laying aside any misconceptions or misunderstandings about science they brought with them. Our job is to do everything we can to help equip them.
As a Christian educator, I hope that students of faith in my classroom will not be driven to a faith crisis over anything I teach them. I hope that their encounter with evolution, rather than shake the foundation of their faith, will strengthen it. And that they will find renewed curiosity about God and science. That they will leave empowered to ask questions rather than just look for answers. And that their journeys will lead them to discover a more dynamic living faith capable of engaging both the heart and mind. This is my hope not only for my students, but also for the Church at large. Maybe in the near future, fun activities like these can be adapted for use in churches and other outreach settings.
I hope that students of faith in my classroom will not be driven to a faith crisis over anything I teach them…[but] that they will find renewed curiosity about God and science.
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About the author
Kate Boyd | Science and the Messy Middle