• University of Bath

Understanding and Teaching Evolution

Learn key concepts in biological evolution and find out how to integrate them into the classroom.

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Find out how to teach evolution to 7–16 year olds

How does evolution happen? Can we observe it in real time? How do new species come about and how long does this take?

When you think about evolution, you may think of Darwin, but modern genetics has transformed our understanding of how evolution happens. This course uses this new genetics-centred approach to explain key concepts in our scientific understanding of evolution.

The course starts with the genetics of inheritance and variation, how natural selection and adaptation leads to speciation, followed by macroevolution and geological time, ending with human evolution.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 21 seconds Hello. I’m Laurence Hurst. I’m the Lead Educator on this programme. I’m standing here today next to the pond at the University of Bath with a large number of different plants and animals surrounding me. But in addition to those, there are many organisms that we can’t see, many too small to see. But what they all have in common is that they are all the product of evolution. But what is evolution? How does evolution happen? And how fast can evolution happen? These are some of the questions of this course. Often, when we think about evolution, you might think about Darwin.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds Our understanding of evolution, however, is now very different and it’s different in no small part because, unlike Darwin, we now understand genetics. Most particularly, we understand DNA and the chemical basis of inheritance, and therefore the chemical basis of the process of evolution. So this course is unusual insomuch as we will start by considering, not Darwin, but by considering genetics. Genetics has informed not only how we understand evolution, but also it has given us new techniques to enable us to understand evolution. Currently, the world of evolution is being transformed by an increase in data, data generated by machines like this. This is a DNA sequencing machine.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 seconds It’s currently estimated that about 90% of all genetic information that we’ve ever known has been accumulated only over the last two years, in no small part because of machines like this. Because of this huge amount of data, we can now ask questions about evolution that were previously unimaginable, and we’re discovering questions that we never even thought to ask about. So it is both concepts and the data that is revolutionising our understanding of evolution, and all of that is centred on our new understanding and data about DNA. We’ve designed the course in no small part for 14 to 16-year-olds to accompany their GCSE courses in biology in the UK context. But it’s not for them and them alone.

Skip to 2 minutes and 52 seconds We’ve also designed it for the teachers, so there are teacher packs to accompany the talks that we will give. But, much more generally, it is for anybody interested in this new genetical view of evolution. The course will start by looking at changes within a species, these mutations increasing or decreasing in frequency. But then we’ll go on to ask different questions, questions about what it is to be a different species, and how new species can form. Moving beyond the questions of how species form, we have questions related to why different groups have different numbers of species within their groups.

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds So, for example, there are over 10,000 species of birds, but the DNA tells us that the closest living relatives of birds are crocodiles, and there’s only a handful of different species of crocodiles. The final topic that we will look at is to look at a species that we find particularly interesting. And that’s to say, us. I hope you enjoy the course, and thank you for watching.

What topics will you cover?

  • Inheritance and Variation
  • Natural Selection and Adaptation
  • Speciation
  • Macroevolution
  • Geological time
  • Human evolution

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Reflect that by biological evolution we mean that many of the organisms that inhabit the Earth today are different from those that inhabited it in the past.
  • Describe how species can change and adapt through naturally occurring genetic variations that are inherited.
  • Understand that natural selection is one of several processes that can bring about evolution, and that natural selection and adaptation can occur over large geological times.
  • Assess fossil evidence for human evolution in the context of the living great apes and modern humans.

Who is the course for?

The course is aimed at primary and secondary school teachers, students, parents, and anyone interested in understanding evolution.

Who will you learn with?

I am the Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at The University of Bath. I have won prizes for both teaching and research. I especially enjoy giving talks in schools.

A member of University of Bath’s cancer research group, Dr Momna Hejmadi has also received awards for excellence in teaching and has carried out work in open education resources.

Who developed the course?

University of Bath

The University of Bath is one of the UK’s leading universities both in terms of research and our reputation for excellence in teaching, learning and graduate prospects.

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