Exploring Evolution Lesson Plans

There are evolution lesson plans that can help teachers get past the controversy to increase student understanding of natural selection.

By Lynsey Peterson


evolution lesson plans

Evolution is still one of the most controversial subjects that we teach in our science classes. Only about 40% of Americans believe in evolution, according to a 2009 Gallup Poll. Yet, evolution is part of the standards of many courses, and is fundamental to understanding biology and ecology. So, how do we teach students a concept that they may be resistant to learning about? How can we help students understand it when other influences may refute it?  Even once we overcome these difficulties, we may find that the theory of natural selection is difficult for many students to conceptualize.

I have found that breaking evolution and natural selection down to their simplest components is the most effective way to teach these topics. I first acknowledge the controversy and restate the scientific meaning of ‘theory’ for my students.  I explain that religion and science are completely separate in their purposes and that I am not trying to replace or uproot their religious beliefs. 

Next, I use simple, concrete examples of evolution in action as a way to help students think about evolution as scientists. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria give a modern example of evolution in action and the Peppered Moth is a wonderful historical example. Other ways to show evidence of evolution are with homologous and vestigial structures.

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for an understanding of the topic, you next need to ensure that students really ‘get’ the theory of natural selection.  I have used many different labs over the years, and they have all helped students understand how the theory works. Hands-on explorations give students a chance to simulate evolution in action, which can be difficult to witness in the real world. The following lessons may help your students model evolution and explore the concepts in more detail.

Evolution Lesson Plans:

Why is Evolution Controversial? 

Students examine the controversy surrounding evolution, including the challenges to science, the battles over teaching evolution in schools, and the reconciliation of religion and science. They also examine an interactive timeline of evolutionary events and present one event to the class.

How Does Evolution Work? 

Students are introduced to how the process of evolution works. As a class, they review the characteristics of natural selection and how those with advantageous traits reproduce and survive. To test this theory of natural selection, they try to put nails into a block of wood without any modern day machinery. To end the lesson, they compare their results to see who was the fittest.

Adaptations to Niches and Habitat 

Students complete a variety of lab activities designed to demonstrate variations and similarities in living things and how adaptations aid in survival. They study and create an illustrated chart of Darwin's finches and compare the evolution of the horse and the elephant.

Camouflage and Protective Coloration: A Model of Natural Selection 

Students study protective coloration and camouflage in animals. They create examples of each and conduct simulation-type experiments to determine which one is the most effective adaptation.

Biology Guide

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Lynsey Peterson