Updated September 2015

NOVA Labs: Evolution

Kids use evidence to figure out how organisms are related

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Science, Critical Thinking

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Teachers can use NOVA Labs: Evolution to help middle and high school students understand how scientists use evidence to determine evolutionary relationships. While short video clips briefly discuss ideas of natural selection, the activities focus on creating phylogenies based on anatomical, fossil, and DNA evidence. It's best if students already have a good understanding of the mechanism of natural selection prior to using this tool. 

Within the module, each short game gives students another piece of the evolution puzzle, first using anatomical, then fossil, then DNA evidence. Students drag and drop organisms into phylogenic trees based on similar traits to figure out evolutionary relatedness. Organism descriptor cards give kids most of the information they'll need, but they may need to do some digging with terms like tail fluke. Let kids design and redesign phylogenies until they find one that works. Kids will be surprised when their trees show them that a banana is more closely related to an onion than a lemon. In the Fossils: Rocking the Earth section, students sort fossils into trees to learn about whether or not present-day birds have anything in common with dinosaurs. After kids have mastered phylogeny basics, they can conduct their own investigations in the Deep Tree section, looking for evolutionary relationships in more than 70,000 different species.


  • Fossils: Rocking the Earth -- Sort fossils to help place extinct organisms into phylogenic trees.
  • DNA Spells Evolution -- Use actual DNA sequences to determine evolutionary relationships.
  • Tree of Life and Death -- See how phylogenic trees are used to treat diseases.
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Featured review by
Donna M. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
Vista Visions Academy
Vista, United States
Meet the NGSS Performance Expectations for Natural Selection and Adaptations!
This lab expanded on students' prior knowledge of fossils, using morphology and DNA sequencing to create a "Tree of Life." I like the mix of teaching content through direct instruction and then allowing students to act like scientists as they add additional information to the tree. The Educator Guide is well-organized with applicable NGSS standards aligned and additional NOVA resources linked, so teachers can easily create a unit around this lab. The Deep Tree activity provides a nice connection to Ea ...
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