MiddleSchoolPortal/Middle School Meets Evolution

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Evolution - Introduction

Wow! Look at all of the different kinds of living things! Boy, these different organisms have a lot in common!

These two seemingly opposite comments come together in the study of evolution. Evolution also provides a wonderfully rich context to discuss the history and nature of science. How does an idea go from being an observation or guess to a theory? How do scientists think as they develop theories? Middle school is a wonderful time to be delving into these questions.



Your middle school students, who in elementary school considered life science from an individual organism perspective, are beginning to think about interactions in ecosystems. In high school, they will broaden their biological perspective to include both smaller and larger realms, considering everything from biochemical processes to living systems in the biosphere. Now is a perfect time to help your students get a firm grounding in the basics of evolution so that they will be prepared to tackle more abstract concepts in high school, such as population genetics and evolution as a basis for biological classification. The scientific habits of mind that they develop as they study evolution will support all of their future scientific endeavors.

We have collected sites with background information and activities to support your students as they learn more about evolution. We know that teaching evolution is sometimes difficult, and so we have assembled a sampling of some online books and courses that provide teacher help. We hope that these selections will help you immerse your students in rich learning about this overarching, unifying theory.

Teacher Help

You might feel that you need to make special preparations for teaching evolution—and rightly so. Evolution is a foundational theory that supports the other concepts in the life sciences. To deeply understand evolution, students need to grasp concepts ranging from DNA to the Earth system. When you discuss evolution, you have the opportunity to correct students' misconceptions and help them develop an understanding of the nature of science. What an awesome task! We have compiled the following resources to help you get ready. They were selected because they might answer some of your questions about evolution and how to teach it.

First, we direct you to NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Scientific Theories map appears below. This map is one of seven under the Nature of Science topic. We've also included the 6-8 Biological Evolution strand map. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals.

Scientific Theories Map

View individual map Printable view of map

Biological Evolution Map

View individual map Printable view of map

Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science: Session 5. Variation, Adaptation, and Natural Selection Teachers, this is your opportunity to take a peek into another teacher's classroom as she facilitates a discussion about the adaptations in plants. This video shows students working in groups to consider the causes of the height variations in Brassica rapa plants, as well as the advantages to being tall or short. Without saying the terms natural selection, differential reproduction, or adaptation, the students work to figure out a natural situation in which only the tall plants would be left in the population. Viewers can see how the students struggle to differentiate between scenarios in which the variations result from the environment and others in which they result from the genetics.

Understanding evolution This site can help answer the questions, What should I teach about evolution? and How should I teach about evolution? It uses a tutorial format to provide basic information about topics ranging from the central ideas of the theory of evolution to the appropriate language to use when talking about evolution. Hyperlinks throughout the site allow you to take your own path through the content. We suggest that new teachers work their way through the entire site and that experienced teachers use the site's straightforward navigation to access areas that would best meet their needs.

UCMP Evolution Forum for Teachers This section of the Understanding Evolution site (described above) is a good starting point for your preparation to teach evolution. It stresses the importance of focusing on the nature of science and the fundamental evolution concepts that are appropriate for your students' grade levels. Teachers can find lessons aligned to grade-specific concepts through a browse or search. Each lesson summary identifies concepts discussed in the lesson, the grade level, and the time it takes to complete the lesson, as well as links to related background information for the teacher.

Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science Compared to the other resources described here, this online book gives a more in-depth look at the content and pedagogy related to teaching evolution. It teases apart language issues, such as the differences among facts, laws, hypotheses, and theories. It offers suggestions for ways that teachers can work together to solve problems that they are having teaching evolution. Readers can find answers to frequently asked questions about evolution and see grade specific references to the National Science Education Standards. The book also has eight evolution activities that use the 5Es (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate) instructional model. The activities identify the standards-based objectives and provide teacher background information.

Online Course for Teachers: Teaching Evolution This online course is an excellent way to reflect on the way you teach the nature of science and evolution in your own classroom while you deepen your own understanding of evolution content and pedagogy. As you go through the different sessions, you interact with a variety of media, including your class' textbook, photographs, and video clips about both scientific concepts and teaching situations. You are given the opportunity to record your answers, which can be printed out for future reference. Facilitator notes are sprinkled throughout the lessons. This online course can be taken individually or with a group in a facilitated setting.

Background Information

As important as reading is, it certainly isn't the only way for students to take in information. And the material that students read doesn't always have to be chunks of black text on a static page. Use these digital resources because they offer interesting and informative content—and use them because they draw on images, animations, video clips, and, yes, some excellent readings to do so. We suspect they'll provide slants on topics such as adaptations, sexual reproduction, and Darwin that will help round out a student textbook's treatment of evolution.

Evolution Evolution—it's the name of a groundbreaking, unifying theory in the life sciences. It's also the straightforward title that PBS gave to a multipronged project that includes this beefy web site, a TV series, a book, and more. If you have access to the DVD or video set, use it in concert with the site. If not, don't fret. The site has marvelous and marvelously free features (in typical PBS fashion) that students can engage with to build their understanding of evolution. The site's seven sections correspond to those of the TV series and include titles like Darwin, Change, Extinctions, and Sex. Each section contains two to four features (essays, simulations, and other interactive features). These features, all called activities on the site, range from excerpts of Darwin's writings to a game about the tree of life that challenges students to decide which organisms are most closely related. Mine the features that fit with the learning goals that you have for your students.

Note about the following two resources: Teachers' Domain offers a free registration option. When you click to view the video or full image that accompanies each reading, you will have three options: register, log in, or view the material as a guest.

Floral Arrangements What does pollination have to do with evolution? Lots! Ask your students that before and after they review this reading and accompanying video. Hopefully they'll bring up the diversity of flower types, natural selection, and more. If needed, take this opportunity to review the parts of a flower and the meaning of the terms pollination and fertilization. Then turn students loose to read the introductory material and to view the video clip (approximately three minutes long). The reading highlights the significance of pollination and describes pollination by wind and by animals. It explores a specific and fascinating example of insect pollination that's featured in the video: the male Thynnid wasp's pollination of hammer orchid flowers that appear and smell to be female wasps. Footage of another interesting animal pollinator, an Australian marsupial called the honey possum, is also featured. The Questions for Discussion that follow the reading make great discussion starters or writing prompts.

Seeds Away Hooks, wings, and sweet fleshy wrappings are just a few of the adaptations that have evolved in the plant kingdom to get seeds where they need to go. This single-page illustrated reading introduces students to these kinds of adaptations and to the primary agents that disperse seeds. Although the reading level might be a bit challenging for young middle school students, the piece offers an unintimidating explanation of how such adaptations might have evolved. It also addresses why it's important for seeds to put down roots away from their parents.


So you want your students to walk out of your classroom with a solid, foundational understanding of evolution—one that they can build on in high school. Well, to help you with that cause, we have selected this handful of online lessons and activities. They use digital media in engaging ways to address a variety of topics related to evolution. There are simulations of natural selection and speciation, full lessons about the history of science and the modern-day need to understand evolution, and a cladistics tutorial that deals with the relationships among living things. Students can complete the simulations in a single class period, while the lessons and tutorial are designed for multiple class periods. Take your pick!

An Origin of Species This excellent simulation does more than tell students what speciation is—it gives the concept wings, beaks, colored plumage, ecological context, and appropriate time scales. Yes, we're talking birds here, and specifically the adaptive radiation of new bird species from members of an original species scattered to different islands during a hurricane. The simulation does a marvelous job illustrating scenarios—including changing levels of competition, predation, and food availability—under which new species can evolve. An extra plus is that students can synthesize information presented on maps and graphs and in images and text as they trace the new species' development over millions of years. Answering the Questions for Discussion that follow the introductory reading could help students with this synthesis. Although the simulated events and species are not real, a special feature called the Species Gallery highlights five actual examples of adaptive radiation.

Dr. Saul's Biology in Motion: Evolution Lab Not sure if your students are grasping what they read about natural selection in a textbook? Fuzzy blue (pretend) organisms, bar and line graphs of changing phenotypes, and the ability to simulate one, five, or fifty reproductive cycles at a time may get their synapses firing. This interactive simulation of natural selection offers lots of data displays. Depending on your students' familiarity with such displays and with vocabulary like mutation and phenotype, you may want to project the simulation and discuss the help documentation that's available for each feature before students explore on their own or in groups. Remember that the mutation rate and selection strength are adjustable, so encourage students to change those settings and study the outcomes. And before they do any of this, they should read the introductory material, which includes a summary of natural selection.

Who Was Charles Darwin? Sure, primary sources are important, but they aren't always an easy fit for the middle school science classroom. Give it a try with this rich lesson from PBS! It offers teaching and learning supports galore, and your students will work with Darwin's journal entries from the Beagle journey—how's that for the history of science? The lesson is split into two activities, each with teacher and student pages. An assessment rubric that covers both activities is also provided. In the first activity, students plot the location of journal entries on a world map and then prepare a concept map of what they detect in the entries that led to Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. Students place Darwin's work in historical context in terms of science and world events in the second activity. Because Darwin's journal entries may be challenging for middle school students to read, and the number of timeline entries that students are asked to make in the second activity might be a bit daunting, think about using the jigsaw strategy for one or both of these activities.

Why Does Evolution Matter Now? After completing the two activities in this lesson, students should be able to offer more than a shrug of their shoulders if you ask them the question posed in the lesson's title. The lesson spans multiple class periods and includes the same kinds of teacher and student supports as the lesson above (both are from the same PBS site). The first activity makes it clear that evolution is occurring right now and that natural selection in microbes can happen in short time frames with health consequences for humans. Students view a video clip about the evolution of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and create a product to educate the public about antibiotic resistance. In the second activity, students investigate how evolution impacts a specific topic such as biotechnology or the environment and then share their discoveries with a home group in classic jigsaw-style. Since the report that students work with in this activity is far from light reading, it presents a good opportunity for them to practice skimming and scanning. They'll also want to consult additional reference sources.

What Did T. rex Taste Like? This five-part tutorial does an excellent job of introducing middle and high school students to cladistics. The cladogram is another tool you can use to help students grasp the big picture of evolution—the concepts of common ancestry and descent with modification are at its core. Check out the teacher's guide for a lesson plan that uses the tutorial, pre- and post-tests, and other tips. The tutorial addresses how cladograms are constructed, what they have to do with evolution, and the kinds of questions that they can answer about organisms. Each part of the tutorial includes a summary segment and questions to check students' understanding. The tutorial is interactive, so students receive feedback on the answers they select.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Genetics.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

Latest Science News from the New York Times

NYT > Evolution

News about Evolution, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

NYT > Archaeology and Anthropology

News about Archaeology and Anthropology, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

National Science Education Standards

These excerpts from the National Science Education Standards (NSES) relate to the study of evolution in middle school.

Unifying concepts

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop understanding and abilities aligned with the following concepts and processes:

  • Evolution and equilibrium

Life Science

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • An organism's behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species' evolutionary history.


  • Millions of species of animals, plants, and microorganisms are alive today. Although different species might look dissimilar, the unity among organisms becomes apparent from an analysis of internal structures, the similarity of their chemical processes, and the evidence of common ancestry.
  • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
  • Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.

Earth and Space Science

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of


  • Fossils provide important evidence of how life and environmental conditions have changed.

History and Nature of Science

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models. Although all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and improvement in principle, for most major ideas in science, there is much experimental and observational confirmation. Those ideas are not likely to change greatly in the future. Scientists do and have changed their ideas about nature when they encounter new experimental evidence that does not match their existing explanations.
  • In areas where active research is being pursued and in which there is not a great deal of experimental or observational evidence and understanding, it is normal for scientists to differ with one another about the interpretation of the evidence or theory being considered. Different scientists might publish conflicting experimental results or might draw different conclusions from the same data. Ideally, scientists acknowledge such conflict and work towards finding evidence that will resolve their disagreement.
  • It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. Evaluation includes reviewing the experimental procedures, examining the evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations. Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science. As scientific knowledge evolves, major disagreements are eventually resolved through such interactions between scientists.


  • Many individuals have contributed to the traditions of science. Studying some of these individuals provides further understanding of scientific inquiry, science as a human endeavor, the nature of science, and the relationships between science and society.
  • Tracing the history of science can show how difficult it was for scientific innovators to break through the accepted ideas of their time to reach the conclusions that we currently take for granted.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Carolee Barber and Judy Ridgway, formerly of Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Science and Mathematics Education, Instructional Resources. Carolee Barber was a science education resource specialist at ENC. She has taught a variety of science courses and worked for a conservation organization. Judy Ridgway was ENC's Assistant Director of Instructional Resources. She is a veteran educator in the biological sciences.

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Copyright June 2005 - The Ohio State University. Last updated September 19, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. 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.