Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science
Evolution and the Tree of Life Featured Classroom: Gail Modugno, Springfield, MA
Gail Modugno, Springfield, MA
“My fifth graders start out with a lot of natural curiosity about life science. I think even on the walk home, kids are looking at animals or noticing changes in the seasons. And it’s the curiosity, some of the magic: “Well, why did the leaves change?” So I think the natural interest is there, and all you have to do is bring it up and then really get them to focus on using their scientific skills.”
School at a Glance:
Alice B. Beal Elementary School
- Location: Springfield, MA
- Enrollment: 312
African American: 30%
- Percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 65% versus a state average of 29%
Gail Modugno teaches fifth-grade math and science at the Alice B. Beal Elementary School in Springfield, MA, the largest city in the state west of Boston. It is a diverse school system, and the school’s enrollment breaks down into nearly perfect thirds between black, Hispanic, and white students. In all areas of state testing, the school’s students score at or above state averages; about 65% of the school’s 312 students receive a free or reduced-price lunch.
The Beal School recently changed its format for fifth grade, assigning its teachers to focus on two subjects and splitting the class into two groups: in the morning, half have math and science while the other half study language arts and social studies, and in the afternoon, they switch.
“When I came into teaching, I was surprised that I fell towards the math and science,” said Gail. “I never expected to, but over the years, that’s just the direction I went in.” When the school made the decision to split the grade and the teaching responsibilities, Gail requested the math and science section, and she now teaches those subjects to all sixty of the school’s fifth graders.
Lesson and Curriculum
Comparing Animal Skeletons; Insights
Lesson at a Glance:
Curriculum: Insights, Education Development Center, Inc., Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company
Topic: Comparing Animal Skeletons
Prior to the activity in Session 6, Gail’s class was studying similarities and differences in animal skeletons. At the beginning of the unit, the class dissected a “mystery object” – an owl pellet. Inside, the students found what they were sure were a variety of bones, but they were unsure what the bones did, much less which animal they belonged to. Gail had them put aside the pellet, while the class spent a number of days studying the human skeleton. Her goal was for her students to gain the skills they would need to identify the bones in the pellet, and, most important, for them to understand that all bones can be divided into six groups, with each group performing a separate function. Then her class went back to the owl pellets and sorted those bones based on what they had learned.
The class also spent time looking at different mammal skulls and at the various features of omnivores, herbivores, and carnivores. The goal here was to tie form to function, to get her students to look at the different parts of the skulls – teeth, jaw, cranium – of various animals and to think about why they were the way they were.
For the activity featured in the video, groups of students observed two pictures of skeletons and discussed the similarities and differences between them. Then the whole class discussed their observations. The activity was intended to get Gail’s students to consider the similarities between different animals and to think about the possibility of relatedness between them – could they have a common ancestor? What might it have looked like?
Reflect on Your Teaching
Students identify the extent to which different animals are similar.
Students consider how similarities might reflect relatedness among animals.
Students generate descriptions of a common ancestor for different animals.
Consider the goals for this lesson as listed above. How can you create a lesson appropriate for your classroom that will fulfill similar goals?
Session 1 What Is Life?
What distinguishes living things from dead and nonliving things? No single characteristic is enough to define what is meant by "life." In this session, five characteristics are introduced as unifying themes in the living world.
Session 2 Classifying Living Things
How can we make sense of the living world? During this session, a systematic approach to biological classification is introduced as a starting point for understanding the nature of the remarkable diversity of life on Earth.
Session 3 Animal Life Cycles
One characteristic of all life forms is a life cycle — from reproduction in one generation to reproduction in the next. This session introduces life cycles by focusing on continuity of life in the Animal Kingdom. In addition to considering what aspects of life cycles can be observed directly, the underlying role of DNA as the hereditary material is explored.
Session 4 Plant Life Cycles
What is a plant? One distinguishing feature of members of the Plant Kingdom is their life cycle. In this session, flowering plants serve as examples for studying the plant life cycle by considering the roles of seeds, flowers, and fruits. A comparison to animal life cycles reveals some surprising similarities and intriguing differences.
Session 5 Variation, Adaptation, and Natural Selection
What causes variation among a population of living things? How can variation in one generation influence the next generation? In this session, variation in a population will be examined as the "raw material" upon which natural selection acts.
Sessions 6 Evolution and the Tree of Life
Why are there so many different kinds of living things? Comparing species that exist today reveals a lot about their relationships to one another and provides evidence of common origins. This session explores the theory of evolution: change in species over time.
Session 7 Energy Flow in Communities
Communities are populations of organisms that live and interact together. The structure of a community is defined by food web interactions. The process of energy flow is the focus of this session as the interactions between producers, consumers, and decomposers are examined.
Session 8 Material Cycles in Ecosystems
Studying an ecosystem involves looking at interactions between living things as well as the nonliving environment that surrounds them. Life depends upon the nonliving world for habitat, as well as energy and materials. In this session, material cycles will be explored as critical processes that sustain life in an ecosystem.