Emulating Evolution by Involving Students

Evolution is one of those topics I really enjoy learning and teaching, particularly with open activities. The War of the Evolutionists Web Scavenger Hunt and Mock Trial, and the Evolution and Adaptation games are just some of my attempts to engage students in ecology and evolution.

Of these The Evolution Game, created by Simon Boswell and Phil Lewis, comes the closest to emulating the process and product of evolution. The rules and gates of the game are the processes of ecology and evolution; it is not a trivia game, a passive one, nor one like charades whose play has little semblance to evolution. As such The Evolution Game exemplifies that rare and powerful quality game that embeds students in their learning by forcing them to deal with and adapt to the “rules” or processes of evolution and ecology. It is however a long-term activity, like Risk, of both strategy and chance.



Just yesterday, I came across another great activity that comes close to emulating both ecology and evolution. The activity, created by Tyler Rhodes and featured by Scientific American, consists of two parts: a student-centered exercise and a technical exercise. The student exercise takes about an hour, or one period, to conduct. The technical one — creating a video — took Tyler, who claims to be expert enough to work efficiently, three months to complete. So feedback in the form of product is delayed, though formative feedback is immediate and embedded in the students’ own activity.

The idea is simple, if not elegant, and follows the same design premise as The Evolution Game and Bernie Dodge’s formula for game design that “Elegance = congruity between the forms of the game and structures within the content“.

Tyler drew a nondescript salamander-like creature and enlisted five independent groups of students (from five schools) to draw copies of this creature.



Once the students compared and discussed the new creatures, Tyler “exposed” the creatures to some ecological stress or change. The students had to vote which creatures perished based on the new ecology and the features of the creatures. According to Tyler, ninety-eight percent of the creatures perished (in a class of 30, where each student drew one creature, one creature survived). Tyler gathered the extinct creatures and repeated the exercise five more times with the survivors, each time with a new ecological event wiping out ninety-eight percent of the creatures. The six generations were kept or labelled apart.

The exercise illustrated branching phylogenetic evolution and coevolution — rather than the defunct linear evolution — as shown in the following drawing, where each “arm” of creatures came from a separate class of students, so giving five arms.


A Wheel of LifeA Wheel of Life © 2012 Tyler Rhodes | more info (via: Tyler Rhodes)
Click on the image to enlarge it.


What is nice about this exercise is that the students actively engage in, and embed themselves in, the process of natural selection by ecological change. They, being the active agents in both the creation and voting off of these creatures, were given the opportunity to experience and learn about the fundamental processes of evolution, much like The Evolution Game.

Tyler designed this process after a “Chinese Whisper” or “Telephone” game, where a message is passed from person to person and changes through mutation as it is delivered. In fact he presented it as a game. The message, however, was visual — the drawing of the creature — and the changing ecology affected the message. Tyler was specifically looking for a way to branch the creature evolution like a phylogenetic tree and his use of the “Chinese Whisper” or “Rumour” game enabled this.

Here is the final video.


The creatures in this video are those from the top-left arm of the Wheel of Life tree illustrated above. Tyler promises four more videos, for each of the remaining four groups of students. And he invites teachers to take his initial nondescript salamander-like creature, repeat his method and e-mail him facsimiles of the creatures created. If teachers take him up on the offer, he can bank, analyze and share some really interesting evolutionary results from the project. His conclusions should be interesting.

For more information on Tyler’s project, visit his blog, Evolution!, documenting his progress.

How can we emulate Tyler’s project for outcomes in our classrooms? Or have you done so already?


Our Children’s Gears: Do You Like Dinosaurs?

Do you like dinosaurs?

Or did you when you were a kid?



Dinosaurs are neat. They are big, ferocious and were, quite frankly, very successful. They were also the dominant animals of the Mesozoic, for 180 million years. That is impressive.


I never liked dinosaurs when I was a kid. I found them boring.

I was beguiled by the Palaeozoic and early Cenozoic rather than the Mesozoic. The creatures — plants and animals — that lived then were alien, intriguing and awesome.

I could never put my finger on why trilobites and Paraceratherium interested me more than dinosaurs. But there was a pattern in that interest that cropped up elsewhere in my life.

An underlying ecology

When it came time for me to enter university, I knew exactly what I wanted to be — an ecologist. Not a botanist, not a zoologist, not even a geologist, an ecologist. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated in zoology, botany and geology, mostly botany, but I did not want to study one thing.

I was interested in it all. I was interested in how it all fit and worked together. I was interested in how life lived on an erratic Earth. Its individual forms fascinate, but mostly as pieces of the intricate whole.

And that, as I later found out, was why I didn’t like dinosaurs. They ate. They fought. They terrorized the land — not to mention other animals. But, until the last ten to twenty years, for me they never belonged — neither fit nor worked — within a bigger system.

They were boring.

In the last decade or two, that changed, or perhaps I became aware of the “bigger” Mesozoic picture. More Mesozoic palaeoecology has been learned and integrated into other disciplines, as illustrated in Harold Levin‘s The Earth Through Time (I have the 2003 seventh edition published by John Wiley and Sons). And now the dinosaurs belong with, influence and are influenced by a bigger lifescape and ecology. Dinosaurs became more and more interesting as they began to fit and work in the puzzle of life and living in a changing, furious Earth.



It is their place in ecology that fascinates me, not their ferociousness nor their reputation.

The point? Even as a child, I was geared toward ecology.

An overarching Universe



My enjoyment of astronomy also stems from the same root. I am fascinated by the Earth’s place and development in the Solar System, and of the Solar System’s place and development in the Universe.

I look at a star as I do a handful of sand and I wonder about its past, about its surroundings, its environment, its present and its future. I wonder about what it interacted — or will interact — with, what it influences or what it is influenced by. I similarly wonder (to the same depth) about the Universe that the star represents and the Earth and rock that the sand typifies.

I remember encountering an ant crawling on a moss and seeing its ecology and the ecology of the ecosystem where it lived. I had no words for these concepts, but I distinctly remember seeing the ant interacting with its environment. I barely noticed the ant outside of this frame. I was in grade two. And I still see ants and stars and handfuls of sand this way.



A far-sweeping magic

Story exists in this way too. With story we build our cultures, societies, histories, skills and technologies. But we also build our spirit and curiosity.

Story exists in a bigger context, constructed of reality and imagination and wonder.

Arthur C. Clarke coined, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I prefer to replace “advanced” with “exotic”, meaning unfamiliar or novel or not (currently) understood.

Ants and sand and stars, ecology and math and story and language are magic. There is always more of them to explore.

Story is a form of species-changing magic. And writing transmits this magic into the minds of generations and far-flung peoples.

In writing fantasy (which I mostly do), one creates the rules of a given world and studies how a story fits and works within that world. It is intriguing to witness story unfold even as one writes it. I am always surprised by what story reveals, about what it says about the world it explores, influences, interacts with and is influenced by.



Story is a key part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I am geared toward it like I am ecology and astronomy.

The gears of our children

In his essay forward, The Gears of My Childhood, to his 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert eloquently describes how gears shaped how he perceived the world and approached learning when he was a child.

We all have our gears where what we learn ceases to be flat and static and becomes multidimensional and living. Papert describes vividly how gears of different sizes fit together to produce meshing products in a multiplication table. I tried to describe here how interactions are part of my guiding gears. I have students who are ranchers. Others are athletes, artists, scientists, writers. And of course they are each interested in more than one thing and are geared toward truly fundamental world views.



Imagine viewing multiplication as representation of meshing gears. What most affects us, influences our world view and shapes how we perceive and interpret what we later encounter has a great effect and affect on what we learn and how we do it.

Teaching toward our children’s gears might help them understand and learn what we are teaching. It also might allow them to more easily own what they learn, extend it beyond our teaching and keep it for a lifetime. Teaching the student more than the students and the lesson content facilitates her engagement with and conceptualization of the outcomes we wish him to learn.

Papert recounts his discovery that others do not share his world model of the gears, but have different models instead. We have to teach students we know in multiple ways to help them learn what we want them to learn. We have to know and value our students to help them realize their influence, their potential and their dreams.

We might have a class under our charge, but that class consists of unique individuals geared by unique world models. The function and art of teaching is to change behaviour not people. Our gears are as precious as our names. Sometimes all we own are these two things. We need to be careful to nurture and engage our children’s gears so that they might serve our children well in our multi-layered societies.



This post was inspired by David Wees’ draft of a keynote he was invited to present at the 2012 University of Alberta Faculty of Education Technology Fair.

About Atoms and Mole Hills

One of the classes I was subbing last week is just starting its chemistry unit and learning the periodic table.



Moles? And … atomic peas?

Moles and atom size are abstract concepts, due to their extremes in quantity and size, that students have difficulty getting their heads around. A few years ago, I had created a page on my Teaching Resource site that helps with visualization of these concepts. My hope is that my page represents atoms and moles in friendlier terms — peas, a more concrete perspective students can sink their teeth into.

Yesterday I shared this page on Twitter, thinking that other teachers would also be studying the periodic table and molar chemistry.

And was I correct. It turns out yesterday, October 23, was Mole Day in North America.



I admit, I never heard of Mole Day before yesterday. Similar to Pi Day, March 14 (3/14) in North America or July 22 (22/7) in the rest of the world, Mole Day celebrates a milestone in human knowledge by matching that milestone to a calendar date (10/23). In this case, the celebration recognizes Avogadro’s Number, 6.02×10^23, the number of unit-entities (atoms or molecules) in a mole. There were even tweets yesterday that Mole Day should be celebrated from 6:02 am to 6:02 pm, only half a day, just like April Fools’ Day in many countries of the world. I like that.

Getting Smart

Last year, I created a Notebook page with Web links to help my students understand the elements in the Periodic Table. It was a simple page; the links were the emphasis. It grabbed my students’ attentions and provided them with dynamic resources from outside of the classroom for either basic or enriched learning.

Update: I had many of the links below, and quite a few more, on the same pages as my Green Pea Analogy when I first published this post. However, I have since moved these periodic table links to their own page to give them the presence they deserve. Visit these pages to learn more about moles and the periodic table, and enjoy.

1. Periodic Table

    In particular, the most useful site is Michael Dayah’s dynamic Ptable in which almost anything periodic and elemental can be learned. I can not recommend this site enough. Similar sites, with less information, are Chemicool’s and Spectrum’s periodic tables.

    For further information on elements, a Periodic Table of Videos offers videos illustrating the elements and their behaviours through empirical experiments. And to show students that no this is not the only periodic table that ever existed, The Internet Database of Periodic Tables shows all the periodic tables ever made from Ancient times to today (literally).

2. Energy States and Orbitals



3. Electron Filling and Configuration

4. Periodic Table Puzzles

5. Music Videos

6. Miscellanea



I thank tweetpmo, who spotted a few errors with my Green Pea Analogy page, most of which I made while trying to simplify explanations or iterate presentation. I have worked to fix these.

Update: Visit my Green Pea Analogy and Periodic Table pages to learn more about moles and the periodic table, and for more information and links on these concepts. I used to have these materials on the same page, but since separated and expanded them. Among other things, they now have student and teacher versions for ready classroom or home use. Enjoy.

This post was inspired by a small group activity I created for the class I was subbing last Friday. My students just did not understand how to balance ions when creating salts, so I abandoned the lesson I was asked to teach on Friday and created a salt creating exercise so I could help student groups as they worked on their puzzles (salt names). I found on Thursday that the one on one attention helped the kids, but there were too many of them to help individually for the time they needed. The students were unanimous in stating that the exercise was helpful. I am glad; I took a risk abandoning my assigned lesson in the slight hope that in the end my students would benefit more by doing this.

Bait Them With Suspense

To begin, happy Thanksgiving to those of you who read my blog and live in Canada. I hope you are doing well and having a great day.



Autumn has always been my favourite season. Along with Christmas, Halloween is my favorite Holiday. Thanksgiving is my next. I think this is because these Holidays remind me of the change of seasons, the metamorphosis from one form of nature to another, when change itself portends something new, something unknown. It is this portent, this suspense, that hooks students and maintains their attention.

Suspense is the desire to know what is next or what something unknown is. It is very different from what was that and what just happened. Suspense is not confusion; it is curiosity awakened and denied, like a bulging pouch dangled on a stick.

In addition to portending change and suspense, Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas seem to be the Holidays when we most clearly recognize and celebrate nature. I always liked natural mysteries, particularly when they are related to phenomena that have been explained.

Take this Astronomy Picture of the Day that seems to show an ocean on fire. But is it?

Actually, it is a sunrise over the Rio de La Plata. Imagine if you would introducing this photograph in your Science or Language Arts class and discussing it before explaining what it is about, then discussing the explanation and how the two descriptions differ and why.



I have often been fascinated by the phenomena of mysterious natural lights, and Autumn seems to fire this fascination. Many of these lights have been explained; many have not. Folklore, contemporary, ancient and in between, magnifies these phenomena making for great language arts stories and controversial, if not messy and notorious, scientific investigations. But what fun kids can have studying these edgy subjects and learning the nature of language arts and scientific inquiry.

Mysterious Weather Phenomena


St. Elmo’s Fire (explained and verified)



Will-o’-the-Wisp (unexplained and unconfirmed)



Newton studied the Will-o’-the-Wisp, as did several other famous and respected investigators. Several authors and poets have used it as a motif. For instance, I wrote an analysis comparing Brook’s King of the Silver River, Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and Tolkien’s Tinfang Warble to the Will o’ the Wisp phenomenon.

Want to get your students interested about nature? Start by teaching them what we do not know and understand, then what we have come to know and understand, and finally what we have studied thoroughly. Natural phenomena offer a mystery, an authentic element of suspense, that stirs almost all curiosity.

Transition into School: Studying Streams to End Summer

Goodbye International Year of Youth

Today is International Youth Day, the last day of International Year of Youth. Both are a special celebration of youth, our future and childhood, all of which are deserving of endless recognition. As teachers, and some of us as parents, we are keenly aware of the value, potential and capacity of youth. We celebrate youth every day and every year.

In North America, the school year will resume in a couple of weeks. We are all busy preparing ourselves and our classes for our students. We are eager to get started and perhaps even a bit nervous to do so (stage fright is so exhilarating).

Update: Due to the fact that I am not an organization arranging a celebration of youth related events, I do not have permission to display the UN International Year of Youth logo. So, I have exchanged my image for a link to the logo. Please select the link to see the logo.



The International Year of Youth logo depicts a planet filled with colourful speech bubbles. The speech bubbles and the sense of community they convey symbolize the theme of the International Year of Youth: “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”. The logo illustrates that the entire world can get involved in the International Year of Youth and can promote dialogue and mutual understanding. The words “International Year of Youth” appear below the logo together with date of the Year (August 2010 – 2011) and the slogan for the Year “Our Year. Our Voice”. [The slogan was chosen by the global youth themselves.]

Refer to UN Observances for other official international UN events.

Just because the International Year of Youth is ending, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep youth in mind. In fact, with the last couple of weeks of Summer still ahead of us, now is a perfect time to think about outdoor science, whether we engage in it now or in September. And what better field camp or trip to transition out of Summer and into school with than to study the local creek or river.



Multi-disciplinary science

Stream science is multi-disciplinary. It involves problem solving in hydrology, geology, geohydrology, geomorphology, chemistry, ecology, physiology, animal behaviour, lux physics, physics, mathematics, art, sonology and civil, environmental and restoration engineering in a simple, concrete, measurable, authentic and holistic setting.

Students use levels, flow meters, D-frames, drift nets, bio-samplers, measuring tape, surveying equipment, sketch supplies, still and video cameras, sound recorders and computers to conduct various experiments to measure, inventory and analyze the morphology and ecology of streams. Not only do they explore the characteristics of streams and stream ecosystems, they use cool tools in authentic situations. If the stream needs restoration or habitat maintenance, the activities the students do aid the community as well.



Streams are defined by mostly one-direction flow (of water, substrate, energy, organic matter, chemistry/water quality, biota, riparian and hyporheic character, and stream morphology) and ecosystem instability (dynamic disturbance). They are dynamic systems, and students generally only get to visit a snapshot of these ecosystems.

Some stream topics are:



Here I will discuss only some mathematical aspects of streams to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of stream study.

The math in stream morphology

This section corresponds to the blue ‘Units’ and ‘Types’ sections of the concept web above.

Streams are periodic in shape, though the shape of the stream and length of the periodicity change with time and location. This shape or stream morphology is determined by landscape features and stream discharge, the volume of water that passes across a cross-section of a stream within a certain time. The greater the discharge, the more drastic its effect (e.g, a 100-year flood is actually a measure of volume, not frequency). The predominant discharge is bankfull discharge, a discharge that fills a channel from bank to bank. Due to its predominance, bankfull discharge literally carves the stream channel.



To understand how bankfull discharge carves the channel, one must understand the nature of unconstricted currents. Streams roll in three dimensional Euler loops as they flow. We see this helical structure in currents in the atmosphere and ocean. On land, the landscape constrains these loops. Different stream structures or types form as the Euler current is embedded onto different landscapes and substrates.



Nonetheless, there is a predictable underlying base pattern to stream morphology. I will present only the mid- or reach-scale morphology, leaving the stream-long and micro- or substrate-scale morphologies to the students to research and study. Reach morphology is determined by bankfull width, which is proportional to bankfull discharge. The following diagram illustrates this morphology, opening a whole new insight into streams that most students never before notice. Equally inspirational hydraulic patterns are waiting to be discovered at other scales of stream morphology.



The reach morphology of the stream cycles downstream with changing periodicity and structure in response to changes in the landscape and substrate the stream cuts through. In addition, bankfull width changes as the stream encounters different obstacles and constrictions. So, though the ideal stream form is predictable, the actual morphology of any stream is dynamic. The form also migrates downstream as the stream erodes and deposits bed and bank substrate.

Stream and riparian landscape and ecology are strongly influenced by stream morphology, hydraulics and hydrology. In addition, like the landscape, biota influence stream morphology.

All this makes stream science a truly interdisciplinary study and a great way to transition students out of summer and into school.

What do your community and you do to help students embrace the last two weeks of summer?

A Quick Tour of Saturn, Cassini-style

In a previous post about my previous Twitter location of “Jumping between Janus and Epimetheus”, I used a photo essay to explain what that location meant. (I am still working on the GeoGebra interactive for that post.)

Today, NASA published a sequence of videos, compiled between 2004 and 2010, showing Cassini’s views of Saturn as it approached and orbited the planet. The video is part of a new IMAX film called Outside In.

Incredible! I hope you enjoy.