Photo courtesy of Mary Lide Parker

As a scientist living in the information age, it is both my responsibility and my pleasure to share a rich and ever growing wealth of scientific knowledge with the general public. As an evolutionary biologist, it has become my mission to help others understand the sometimes overwhelmingly complex process of evolution. In order to accomplish this, I have teamed up with a colleague of mine and developed a suite of lesson plans to aid current educators in teaching the topic of evolution. In addition, I have taught these subjects directly in the classroom and am always looking for more opportunities to do so. Check out a few example lesson plans we have designed below, and if you are an educator interested in using one of my lesson plans, give me a shout and I'll give you all of the necessary info and files. If you would rather have me come give the lesson in person, or give a guest lecture, please feel free to send me an email and we can set something up! If you have any other ideas in mind, I am always open to suggestions!


Optima is a quick and easy card game to teach concepts of adaptive evolution as well as colonization and extinction dynamics on islands. Students play as a new colonist species in an oceanic archipelago. In order to "win", a species must be able to disperse to islands across the archipelago and adapt to the local conditions there before going extinct! Typical play time is roughly 30 minutes, leaving 10 minutes for setup and 10 minutes to breakdown and discuss the concepts the students were introduced to (i.e. mutation, adaptation, colonization, and extinction).

Starburst Evolution

Starburst evolution is a quick activity designed to differentiate adaptive and non-adaptive evolution. All you need is a big bag of starbursts and some paper bags! For non-adaptive evolution, students break into groups of 5. Each group has a paper bag with 10 random starbursts in it. They start by pouring the starbursts out and determining the frequency of the different starburst colors. The starbursts are then placed back in the bag and each student draws one at random, therefore removing those starbursts from the population. The 5 remaining starbursts are doubled back up to 10 according to their color (a red is added for each red, a yellow is added for each yellow, etc.). The students record the frequency of each color, and the exercise is repeated until either there is only one color remaining or until a time limit is reached by the instructor. Students can then plot how the starburst color frequencies changed in the population over time due to random sampling. This is analogous to genetic drift!

For adaptive evolution, the setup is the same (i.e. 5 students with 10 random starbursts) except this time the starbursts are no longer hidden in a paper bag. Each round, students pick their favorite color instead of picking randomly. The frequency of the colors are recorded each round, and this exercise is repeated until either there is only one color remaining or until a time limit is reached by the instructor. Students can then plot how the starburst color frequencies changed in the population over time due to selection by students on starburst color. This is analogous to natural selection!

Picturing Species Diversity

Students break up into two groups representing two geographically separated environments (e.g. islands). A simple picture will be briefly presented to one student from each group for 5-10 seconds - I prefer a cartoon butterfly with very basic wing patterns (think striped vs. solid). They will then draw the picture from memory and hand it to the next student in their group, who then repeats the process - they will have 5-10 seconds to see what the first student has drawn and recreate the sketch. This process will continue until all members of each group have had the opportunity to draw. Groups will compare their final drawing to the original picture to see how divergence has occurred between 'environments.' For discussion, consider discussing biologically how those changes may have accumulated (i.e. mutation, selection, drift), and why it was important that the two groups are separate (i.e. there is no gene flow between them). Consider comparing the drawings at different time points to see how the number of times it was redrawn influences how different the pictures are. Although this exercise is just a loose analogy for divergence, it can be used as a segue into discussions of how one species may become two.