5 Classroom Activities That Demonstrate the Theory of Evolution

Understanding the Complex Process of Evolution

Evolution lessons need to be supplemented by hands on activities
Classroom. Terry J Alcorn/Getty

Students often struggle with understanding the theory of evolution. Since the process takes a long time, evolution is sometimes too abstract for students to grasp. Many learn concepts better through hands-on activities to supplement lectures or discussions.

These activities can be stand-alone lab work, illustrations of topics, or stations in a group of activities occurring at the same time:

Evolution 'Telephone'

A fun way to help students understand DNA mutations is the childhood game of "Telephone"— with an evolution-related twist. This game has several connections to aspects of evolution. Students will enjoy modeling how microevolution can change a species over time.

The message sent through the "telephone" changes as it passes between the students because small mistakes by students accumulate, much like small mutations happen in DNA. In evolution, after enough time passes, those mistakes add up to adaptations and can create new species that don't resemble the originals.

The Ideal Species

Adaptations allow species to survive environments, and the way in which these adaptations add up is an important concept of evolution. In this activity, students are assigned environmental conditions and must decide which adaptations would create "ideal" species.

Natural selection occurs when members of a species that make favorable adaptations live long enough to pass the genes for those traits to their offspring. Members with unfavorable adaptations don't live long enough to reproduce, so those traits eventually disappear from the gene pool. By "creating" creatures with the most favorable adaptations, students can demonstrate which adaptations would ensure that their species evolve.

Geologic Time Scale

This activity can be done in groups or individually. The students draw, to scale, the geologic time scale and highlight important events along the timeline.

Understanding the appearance of life and the process of evolution through history helps to show how evolution changes species over time. For perspective on how long life has been evolving, students measure the distance from the point where life first appeared to the appearance of humans or the present day and calculate how many years that has taken.

Imprint Fossils

The fossil record provides a glimpse of what life once was like. Imprint fossils are made when organisms leave impressions in mud, clay, or other soft material that hardens over time. These fossils can be examined to learn how the organism lived.

The fossil record is a historical catalog of life on Earth and provides evidence for the theory of evolution. By examining fossils, scientists can determine how life has changed. By making imprint fossils in class, students see how these fossils outline the history of life and how it has changed.

Modeling Half-Life

Half-life, a way of determining the age of substances, is the time it takes for half the atoms in a radioactive sample to decay. For this lesson about half-life, the teacher collects pennies and small covered boxes and has the students place 50 pennies in each box, shake the box for 15 seconds, and dump the pennies onto a table. Roughly half the pennies will show tails. Remove those pennies to illustrate that a new substance, "headsium," has been created in 15 seconds, the "half-life."

Using half-life allows scientists to date fossils, adding to the fossil record and providing evidence of evolution and how life has changed over time.