Explain evolution to a class of 5th graders

The reason I put this in IMHO is because I’m just looking for ideas, not to start a debate or get factual answers. This is intended to be a fun thread.

Disclaimer: I am not a 5th grade teacher. I don’t even know any 5th graders. I do not want to know any 5th graders. This is just a random brain fart turned outwards.

Let’s suppose you are a 5th grade teacher given the task of teaching your class the basics of evolution. Due to scheduling problems, budget cutbacks, pressure from creationists, etc., you have only, say, two classes in which to explain as much about evolution as you can. Let’s further say that on day one you will do an experiment, and on day two you will discuss the results. And perhaps you might not even get your day two.

I would think that two concepts would need to be taught–random variation and natural selection. You need to show how these two concepts combine to change the characteristics of a population over time. For now you can forget things like speciation and puctuated equalibrium, and just focus on the basics mentioned previously.

You might decide some sort of game would be the best way to do this. It gets the students involved, is fun, and teaches them in a way that they will truly learn from. Perhaps it can be a game involving dice, or flipping coins. Perhaps colored construction paper can be used. Perhaps the students can wear fun little hats. One restriction–you have a small budget. You don’t even have computers. In fact, let’s assume standard school supplies and a budget of $10.

What sort of game would you devise?

Let’s try this with food- kids always seem to pay more attention when there’s food involved. Plus, you can get them through the rest of the day’s lessons by saying “We need to get through this if you want to do the food experiment later.”

Let’s make three (you can change this number, if you like) students “predators.”

The rest of the class gets to take care of a “species” of M&Ms. Each of these students gets two M&Ms of the same color (ie, some students get two blue ones, some get two red ones, but no one gets a red one and a blue one together). They may not eat these.

Predator #1 picks a color out of a hat. Let’s say he picks red. This means that all of the non-red M&Ms are capable of hiding, but the predator can see the red ones. He gets to eat all of the red M&Ms in the classroom. All of the other M&Ms “reproduce” and get 2 more M&Ms in their color.

Predator #2 picks a color. Let’s say he picked green. He then gets to eat all of the green M&Ms, while the other colors that are left get to reproduce again.

Predator #3 picks a color (say, yellow), and eats them, while the other M&Ms reproduce. These are the survivor species. The other M&Ms were killed off by evolution because only the M&Ms that were not able to be seen by the predators were able to reproduce.

The kids now get to eat their candy, and you can pass out more to the kids whose candy was consumed by predators.

This sounds kind of complicated here, but I think it would be simpler in practice.

I like it, but what I don’t like is that there seems to be only one iteration of passing on genes. It would be more instructional if there were several iterations, showing how the population of survivable species grows over those iterations. And it would be nice if there were some random variation in it, such as picking random colored candies each time.

“Well, kids, you see the Devil fills men’s hearts with pride and a wish to deny God, so…”

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.) :smiley:

Seriously I think you’re on the right track. You could maybe use toys as well. create an “environment” where one type of toy flourishes and another doesn’t. Then change the environment. You could also isolate two groups of toys in different environments to show how natural selection can create two new species where there was only one.

Unfortunately, this would only serve to perpetuate the misconception that natural selection is nothing more than a killer. There would need to be something to demonstrate that certain M&Ms have an advantage over the others, as well. Like, maybe, the ones that really don’t melt in your hand get a larger bump in the next iteration.

One problem with teaching 5th graders about evolution is that you really need to focus on the reproductive aspect. The “winners” are those who get to mate, and mate more often. And the reason they get to mate is because of what makes them winners. Maybe you could compare rock stars vs. 5th grade science teachers as an example…

But, really, you just need to emphasize the essence: the “winners” tend to increase in relative numbers from one generation to the next, the “losers” tend to decrease in relative numbers, and the “average” more or less remains steady. Over time, the “winners” will tend to predominate. And what makes one a “winner” or “loser” is based on the prevailing conditions at the time.

Agreed. I was thinking that maybe they get some sort of maze that they have to manuever through, with the class divided into 2 or 3 teams. Each kid gets a random card that tells him in which direction he’s allowed to move, or how far ahead he caan look. The kid that gets the farthest can then propogate identical or similar cards to his team mates.

Or something like that.

I think a good concept to discuss is “Descent with Modification” – although we are like our parents, we are not exactly like our parents. Sometimes, these differences confer advantages.

Have each kid come up with one way they are not like either of their parents. Could be behavior or physiology. Challenge them to devise a scenario in which this difference would become an advantage.

Example: I don’t like peas
Scenario in which this is an advantage: entire pea crop rendered poisonous by mysterious forces from outer space.

Lesson: when we think of “mutations” we think of three eyed fish that glow in the dark. But most mutations are minor changes that aren’t very important until the right conditions come along.

How about this?

Each kid stands at one end of the room, and each gets something like 4 blue poker chips. During each turn, each kid gets to drop one blue chip into a hat, and then randomly selects either a blue or red chip out of the hat. He then walks forward one step for every red chip that he has. He may then ask the teacher to give one random kid the same number of red chips that he himself has. It’s random, winners tend to move on, and it replicates.

Off the top of my head, how about staging the Peppered Moth bit with the kids?

  1. Distribute a red or white card/chip/token to each kid. Tell them they’re all butterflies (yeah, moths, whatever) of that color.

  2. Now tell them the classroom is a field of (red or white) flowers.

  3. The teacher is the “predator.” On a turn, he/she gets to tag X kids of the contrasting color and “eats” them.

  4. Now there are more kids of the matching color than the contrasting color. The butterflies reproduce, so the “eaten” kids get to re-enter the game as new butterflies of the matching color. Give 'em tokens.

  5. Repeat steps 3 & 4 several times, until the contrasting butterflies are almost gone.

  6. Now change the environment, and tell the kids that the flowers are the opposite color. Make up an excuse for the environment change, doesn’t matter.

  7. Repeat steps 3 & 4 for several iterations again.

When everyone’s sick of playing, use the lesson to summarize how evolution is less about “changing forms” (a common misconception for layfolk) and more about how the species more suited for their environment thrives.