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How to Introduce Evolution to Your Students

By Sara Tallarovic

Darwin Day is coming up on Wednesday, February 12th. It presents an excellent opportunity to introduce or discuss the concept of evolution by natural selection with your students. While I’m now part of the Vernier Biology Department, I previously worked for 15 years as a university biology professor and know first hand how creative teachers have to get when introducing new concepts to a classroom of students. There are plenty of ways to get students excited about evolution, and here are a few ideas.

Introducing Evolution with Candy

Hands-on activities easily engage students, and when I was teaching biology, one of my favorite ways to introduce evolution was with a candy hunt. You can find multiple versions of this exercise online using different types of candies, but I like mixing together a bag of plain M&M’s® (the original kind with six colors) and several bags of candy corn (the original yellow, orange, and white type) in a large shallow bowl or tub. I pass it around and ask students to select a number of M&M’s® but not to eat them. You can vary the number they choose to match your class size.

Once the candy circulates around the entire room, we count how many of each color of M&M’s® were selected and graph it on the board. The results are always striking. Very few of the yellow and orange M&M’s® are typically selected, while more contrasting colors, especially blue and green, are selected in higher proportions.

Right away, students can begin picturing the forces at work in the natural world. We then talk about the variation of our “population” of M&M’s® and how some “individuals” might have a selective advantage by blending in with the substrate (candy corn) whereas others were easier for their “predators” to spot. The exercise makes a fun prelude to a more in-depth lesson on evolution and natural selection.

Deepening Student Understanding of Evolution

I found that incorporating a variety of interactive and informative activities resonated with my students. After introducing the concept of evolution through the candy hunt, I used a mixture of short videos and hands-on experiments. If you enjoy sharing media with your class, you can also browse HHMI BioInteractive’s evolution collection, where you can find a wealth of free activities and short films.

One of my favorite films is The Making of a Theory: Darwin, Wallace and Natural Selection. This half hour piece presents a compelling history lesson, telling the stories of both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, which helps students visualize the physical and intellectual journeys that led these two men to the discovery of evolution and natural selection.

If you are more interested in the mechanics of evolution than the history of its discovery, my colleague and former high school biology teacher, Colleen, recommends The Making of the Fittest: Adaptation and Natural Selection, which is a 10 minute film about the evolution of rock pocket mice.

How Vernier Can Help

Whether your lesson plan includes activities like the candy hunt, videos, or other approaches, engaging students through evolution-themed laboratory activities are highly effective, and Vernier has multiple experiments to fit your class. Our inquiry-based laboratory experiments include exploring the evolution of yeast, comparing the respiratory systems of different aquatic organisms, and many more. You can access more information about these experiments here.

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