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The Problem With Evolution…

…is that it’s kind of hard to teach.

Sorry for the click bait…I couldn’t resist. This is an update for my master’s class on finding solutions to instructional challenges in the classroom.


One of the hardest things about teaching in a science classroom is the abstract nature of many topics. One of my favorite teacher-isms from chemistry was introducing atoms: “This entire unit is based on our best guess. We don’t actually know what atoms look like, but we can make a good guess from observation.” I would get some funny looks from students, but they need to know that what they’re asked to learn isn’t always “hard” science.

I chose to tackle evolution for this particular assignment. Without getting into the philosophy of evolution, the task of teaching the mechanics is a well-defined problem. The principles are documented and observable, but students cannot conceptualize major changes in populations over time. That’s where the amazing simulations from the University of Colorado – Boulder come in.

The PhET Simulations have been around for a long time, yet not many people know about them. They’re interactive models of topics like evolution, but also chemistry, earth science, and physics, among others. Most of the simulations are still Java based, which means they don’t play well on Chromebooks or mobile. But, the HTML5 library is growing, and it is definitely worth checking out if you’re in a science classroom.

Let’s not forget the why. For me, it was simple: repeatability. The simulations are so simple to use, students feel like it’s a game. Playing with conditions (like trying to kill all the rabbits or blow the box of gases up) leads them to making general observations about their world that would be difficult to do otherwise. Mess up completely? No problem, hit reset and start again. Can you reproduce those results? What about getting an opposite result? Coming from multiple classrooms with limited resources, these simulations were invaluable to me each and every year.

If you want to play, my favorites were Natural Selection, Build an Atom, and Gas Properties. Have you used the PhET sims before? Which were your favorites?

Categorized in: MAET

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