Common Sense Review
Updated February 2014

OneZoom Tree of Life

Online tree of life intrigues with zoom, could use more instruction
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Common Sense Rating 3
Teacher Rating (1 Teacher Review) 3
  • OneZoom’s homepage provides a demonstration
  • Site tools allow for changing views and other options; tips are available on mouse-over.
  • The site provides color-coded information about conservation status as well as links to additional organism details on related sites.
  • The growth animation feature allows users to view changes in speciation over time; this plant example is paused in the Jurassic.
  • Users can search the site for key words and are taken from hit to hit with fun flyby animation.
The visual connections among living things give students better context for larger scientific issues, as well as the work scientists do.
As it isn't expressly designed for classroom use, teacher support is a must for students' learning.
Bottom Line
It's well worth a tour, and possibly a project, but be ready to provide the guidance and instruction the site lacks.
Christie Thomas
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 3
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 3

Zooming through this virtual tree of life will engage many, but might not impress upper level science students. The animation features are mesmerizing. Links to sites with photographs and habitat info will get kids clicking.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 2

Students may need significant teacher support, as the site doesn't explain or direct. But there's an opportunity here to connect with scientists who want to make data viewable and understandable.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 2

There's a tutorial video on the main page, and mouse-over prompts help identify icons. However, the site lacks a color-coding legend, a dictionary, and necessary explanations about the tree of life.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

OneZoom can work well as a resource for students studying environmental issues. The conservation status of species is easily viewed using the tree's default coloring, and right-there links can help guide research. The site could also be a quick stop while exploring geologic time: coloring can be set to reflect eras, and the growth animation feature allows students to view speciation. OneZoom is a definitive tool for seeing scientists' current understanding of evolutionary relationships, but you'll need to do your own scaffolding and instruction here.

Because OneZoom is a real scientific work-in-progress, it's a must-use in helping students understand the nature of science. For example, after viewing the About video, a class can discuss modern scientific issues related to “big data” and the need to visualize and explore so much information. As it's all straight from real scientists' mouths, the video is a great jumping-off point.

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What's It Like?

OneZoom Tree of Life is a digital, dynamic, zoomable map of the tree of life. As the name implies, OneZoom allows users to zoom in for more details (leaves represent individual species) or zoom out for the bigger picture (branches show evolutionary relationships).

From the homepage, users can choose to preview or explore each of the site's 5 trees, as well as view tutorials and About videos. Within the tree, both Latin and common names are listed, as well as the number of species within a group and the date of speciation. There are different animation options: The growth animation option allows users to see speciation over time; the flight animation option -- used when searching -- lets users zoom from the main tree to each hit based on a keyword.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Originally designed to relieve the novel problem of having too much data, OneZoom lets kids zoom in and out among all living things, getting a grasp of the complex relationships between. On top of that, the animation options and scale can be awe inspiring. Beyond this, however, the site doesn't explicitly instruct, though there's certainly potential for further learning. When zoomed all the way in, most organism's leaves include links to various other web resources: Wikipedia, Discover Life, Encyclopedia of Life, and ARKive.

On another level, OneZoom is an opportunity for students to engage with modern science. The inclusion of conservation status can encourage kids to think about humans' impact on ecosystems. Also, the tree depicts what is known about the diversity of life and evolutionary relationships. That said, it doesn't actually teach or instruct in these areas. Also, the pie chart of conservation status and related tree coloring heighten awareness, but, problematically, there isn't a legend to explain these settings. While simply exploring can be fun -- and may lead to some "a-ha" moments -- kids will need support and instruction from teachers to understand the site's immense, complex content.

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