The Tree Room: A New Online Resource for Teaching Evolutionary Relationships
Posted: Thursday, November 12th, 2015
by Anna Thanukos, Teresa MacDonald, David Heiser, and Robert Ross
Understanding evolutionary trees is important for students because trees visually represent the idea that all life is genealogically linked. This powerful idea, tied to Next Generation Science Standards MS-LS4-2 and HS-LS4-1, is one of those most fundamental concepts that biological evolution offers to explain the biological world. The implication is that any set of species, no matter how distantly related, share common ancestors at some point in evolutionary history. Evolutionary trees are an efficient way to communicate that idea. It turns out, however, that evolutionary trees are not quite as straightforward to interpret as they may at first appear — so where can a teacher turn for a user-friendly introduction to their use in the classroom?
The Tree Room is a new component of UC Berkeley’s renowned Understanding Evolution website. It contains resources both for teachers in K-16 education and for exhibition designers at informal science education venues such as museums, nature centers, zoos, and aquariums. The Tree Room provides user-friendly, accessible information on how to interpret trees, how they are built, and how they are relevant to society. The website starts with a Primer on trees that can help one learn the basics of evolutionary trees.
The origins of the new website emerged from research within the past decade that documents how evolutionary trees are often misunderstood by the public, including our students. For example, commonly students pay most attention to the ordering of taxa along the tips of a tree, without looking carefully at the branching pattern. Students might assume, therefore, that taxa next to each other are necessarily the most closely related. Students might also assume that one side of a tree, often the right side on a tree positioned “upward,” includes taxa that are more “advanced.” Branching patterns of evolutionary trees, however, can be shown in any order and communicate relative recency of splitting of lineages; in fact, branches can be flipped (rotated) and still communicate the same information. The section of the website “Tree misinterpretations” provides many more examples.
A wide variety of evolutionary tree forms are encountered through textbooks, popular media, and elsewhere, increasing the challenge of interpreting them. These designs range from sets of branching lines to graphics that look like actual trees or branching blobs. The Tree Room’s Field Guide explains how to interpret these various tree forms and their features, and ways in which some designs are more accessible than others. Research has shown, for example, that trees with squared corners (picture a tuning fork) are easier to interpret than the diagonal and circular trees that are common in scientific literature. Blobby trees look friendly but tend to be inherently ambiguous, because it’s unclear how exactly the lineages are related to each other.
In the “For teachers” part of the site are ideas for incorporating tree-thinking exercises into curricula and a searchable database of dozens of vetted lessons and tools for teaching about trees. These lessons and resources, for grades 6 to 16, can be searched by grade level, keyword, and type (for example, lab activity, article, tutorial, and so on). Under the link “For museums and zoos” are resources written with museum exhibition designers in mind. However, some of these resources, in particular the section called Tips for tree design, may be useful for teachers who want to create new evolutionary tree graphics or modify existing ones for their teaching.
There’s another reason for students to understand evolutionary trees beyond the fundamental idea of common ancestry. Evolutionary trees are increasingly used to inform new biological research relevant to students’ lives, such as determining the origin and spread of infectious diseases, making crop choices in changing environments, choosing taxa to investigate for new medicines, and understanding the spread of invasive species. Our students may or may not be doing this research for their careers, but it will surely influence their lives and communities.
The Tree Room website was officially launched in May 2015. It was developed through a partnership among the University of California Museum of Paleontology, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, the Yale Peabody Museum, and the Paleontological Research Institution, with input from a wide variety of evolutionary biologists and science educators. The project was supported with funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (grant number LG-26-12-0578-12).
Anna Thanukos develops and writes science education content for the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley (email@example.com). Teresa MacDonald runs the education program at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence, Kansas (firstname.lastname@example.org), David Heiser runs the education program at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in New Haven, CT (email@example.com), and Rob Ross runs the education program at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, NY (firstname.lastname@example.org).
All images are from the Understanding Evolution website and are used by permission of the University of California at Berkeley.
Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…