Finding Answers to Questions

(a repost from an earlier entry on my other blogs: EL Biology and the defunct, Teaching Biology)
Catching trout in the Rockies
Last spring, I made a life-changing decision—I decided to become a fly fisherman. I have been fly fishing off and on for about five years but I had been fighting making a commitment to this new avocation. I was afraid of the time and resources that I’d have to commit in order to fulfill this passion. I’m not sure of the exact moment but I’m sure that it was in the spring along an Ozark trout stream. While I’m born and bred a prairie biologist, I do revel in the beauty of spring in the Ozarks.

There is real substance to the mystique of fly fishing—skills and knowledge that can take a lifetime to master but the rewards, while subtle, are great. For a biologist, I can think of few avocations with as much reward. As Norm Maclean explains in A River Runs Through It, “It’s not fly fishing if you are not trying to find answers to questions.” So, this essay is not really about fly fishing—it is about trying to find answers to questions……
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Horse Evolution

Here, in the Central Plains we are surrounded by some of the best documented fossil evidence for the evolution of major lines of organisms. Fossil evidence for the evolution of horses has long been used to promote public understanding of evolution–and just as often used to promote particular hypotheses of how evolution works in the later part of the 1800’s into the 1900’s. A couple of years ago, KABT’s spring field trip was to Ashfall State Park in NE Nebraska. Fossil Barn

There, in addition to in situ rhinoceros fossils you’ll find a selection of 5 different species of horse fossils. When one of the KABT members in attendance checked out the following display along with the fossil barn, she exclaimed, “How could anyone looking at this evidence doubt that evolution has occurred?”Fossil Horses

KABT is planning on returning to Ashfall next spring so that more KABT members can experience this great resource. In the meantime the reason for this post is that I recently came a great synopsis and discussion about the history of our understanding of horse evolution as well as an update of where we are today. Check out “The Branching Bush of Horse Evolution” at “Laelaps” blog.


Web Based Genetics Inquiry Lab

Virtual Courseware Banner

If you need a good inquiry project for students during this hectic time of year, go to . The Virtual Courseware Drosophila lab is very interactive, develops inquiry skills, comes with prepared assessments, and documents the links to national science standards. Individual students or group projects can be accommodated. All results and student reports are stored on an external, web-accessible server so that students and teachers can manage the projects and collect data from any internet connected computer.

Flock of Dodos on DVD

From Randy Olson:

Flock of Dodos” (plus 80 minutes of extras) now for sale on home DVD

It’s been a long road since our premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of last year, but the movie is FINALLY being released today nationally on home video by New Video ($26.95) as part of their acclaimed Docurama showcase and is currently featured on their home page. It also will continue to air on Showtime over the next two years. If you haven’t heard of “Flock of Dodos”, you can read about the film and its reviews on our website. The DVD costs a bit less on Amazon.

Over the past year and a half I’ve attended about 50 public screenings, almost all of which have been followed by panel discussions or Q&A’s. In these sessions, there are a number of most common questions that come up. These include, “What exactly is the difference between intelligent design and creationism?” “Why is this controversy so uniquely American?” and “Has the media done a good job of reporting this issue?”

We would have liked to have addressed these questions in the film, but we knew that if we did, we would have had an even more information-heavy film which would never have aired on the same channel that brings you “The L Word,” and “Weeds.” (by the way, the reason the film had such limited theatrical exposure was the distributors ALL felt it was too academic/educational/information-heavy, which is a nice contrast to some evolutionists who felt the film was “too light weight” and illustrates the central dilemma in communicating science).

So the great thing with home DVD is that it includes in the EXTRAS a section called, “Ten Questions,” in which the answers to ten of the most common questions the film generates are answered by Dr. Eugenie Scott (Director of the National Center for Science Education) and a panel discussion sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which includes three evolutionists and a theologian. It should be a very useful resource for educators.

Steve Case

Recent Adaptation Evidence in the Human Genome

Warning: Proud father’s posting ahead……

This past summer, one of the NY Times Tuesday Science issues was focused on evolution studies. One of the research papers highlighted by Nicholas Wade in his article titled, “Humans Have Spread Globally and Evolved Locally” , had native Kansan, Scott Williamson, as lead author. The work received quite a bit of additional publicity. Here’s the lead paragraphs of an article that I think is the best summary that I have seen written about the article.

Cornell Chronicle Online, July 11, 2007
Evidence that up to 10 percent of human genome may have changed very recently revealed by CU researchers
By Krishna Ramanujan

A Cornell study of genome sequences in African-Americans, European-Americans and Chinese suggests that natural selection has caused as much as 10 percent of the human genome to change in some populations in the last 15,000 to 100,000 years, when people began migrating from Africa.

The study, published in the June 1 issue of PLoS (Public Library of Science) Genetics, looked for areas where most members of a population showed the same genetic changes. For example, the researchers found evidence of recent selection on skin pigmentation genes, providing the genetic data to support theories proposed by anthropologists for decades that as anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa and experienced different climates and sunlight levels, their skin colors adapted to the new environments.

However, the study found no evidence of differences in genes that control brain development among the various geographical groups, as some researchers have proposed in the past.

Now I’m not just bringing this to your attention because Scott happens to be our (Carol’s and my) son. Actually, I think you’ll find the results timely for your classroom–particularly the table that summarizes the different recent adaptations in various populations. In addition, you might notice that that they provide contrary evidence to some of the claimed brain development adaptations recently reported. Science at work. Check it out, you’ll find the table useful.

Here’s the author’s summary from the article:

Author Summary

A selective sweep is a single realization of adaptive evolution at the molecular level. When a selective sweep occurs, it leaves a characteristic signal in patterns of variation in genomic regions linked to the selected site; therefore, recently released population genomic datasets can be used to search for instances of molecular adaptation. Here, we present a comprehensive scan for complete selective sweeps in the human genome. Our analysis is complementary to several recent analyses that focused on partial selective sweeps, in which the adaptive mutation still segregates at intermediate frequency in the population. Consequently, our analysis identifies many genomic regions that were not previously known to have experienced natural selection, including consistent evidence of selection in centromeric regions, which is possibly the result of meiotic drive. Genes within selected regions include pigmentation candidate genes, genes of the dystrophin protein complex, and olfactory receptors. Extensive testing demonstrates that the method we use to detect selective sweeps is strikingly robust to both alternative demographic scenarios and recombination rate variation. Furthermore, the method we use provides precise estimates of the genomic position of the selected site, which greatly facilitates the fine-scale mapping of functionally significant variation in human populations.


Action BioScience

AIBS –American Institute of Biological Sciences has a great resource for teachers called ActionBioScience. You’ll find a number of very accessible articles on current biological science issues written by leaders in the field.
Action BioScience
A summary of what you’ll find from the editorial assistant, Nathan Stenstrom: offers resources to enhance teaching in the biosciences:
* Peer-reviewed, easy-to-read articles on bioscience issues, which make excellent student reading material or content for case study activities
* Educator-written lessons to accompany many of the articles with handouts for middle school, high school, and/or college level students
* NSES correlation charts that match our articles and lessons to national standards, making lesson planning an easier process
* Spanish translations of select articles, useful for ESL students who need to improve their science language literacy skills”

COPUS–Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science

The KABT Board has recently voted to participate in the COPUS–The Coalition On the Public Understanding of Science network. From the COPUS home page:
Copus logo

“The Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) is a grassroots effort linking universities, scientific societies, science centers and museums, advocacy groups, media, educators, businesses, and industry in a peer network having as its goal a greater public understanding of the nature of science and its value to society. This is an essential step in re-establishing the nation’s role in the global scientific enterprise. It is critical to ensuring the long-term social well-being of the American people.”

From their invitation to paticipate

“The foundation of our collective efforts is the development of the following three resources to help promote a greater public understanding of the nature of science and its value to society.

1. COPUS — the Coalition itself is the ongoing communication & collaboration network with like-minded organizations that we plan to keep in place for many years to allow the sharing of information about the public understanding of science among organizations and with the general public.

2. The Year of Science 2009 is a 12-month period of activities and celebrations of science put on by the organizations involved in COPUS that will be registered in the COPUS website’s publicly searchable database of events and programs.

3. The Understanding Science website — COPUS and Year of Science 2009 efforts will soon be collaborating with this exciting new content-rich website being developed at the University of California Museum of Paleontology and set to launch later in 2007. The website will support K-16 science teaching with a conceptual framework for teaching the nature of science at all grade spans, a searchable database of vetted teaching resources, and strategies for integrating and reinforcing the nature of science within content areas mandated by state and national science standards.”

Leaf Color and Inquiry

Leaf color

As many of you know, I am in upstate New York this summer and fall. I’m simply amazed that fall is progressing so fast. This photo were taken back on Aug. 24th. Leaf color as a topic for inquiry has a great deal of potential. Nearly everyone living in the Northern temperate areas, at one time or another, has marveled at the brilliant foliage displays and asked the question: “Why do leaves turn color?”

Carl Zimmer, author, blogger from Science Blogs and science writer for the NY Times is also fascinated by leaves. Carl has a 4 year series of articles that explore the ongoing research into why leaves turn color in the fall. This is a great place to begin an investigation into how science works in a way that is very accessible to students (and teachers).

Carl does a great job of summarizing the pace and direction of the leaf color research in an article that appeared in the NY Times and in the following blog posts: 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004,and 2003.

Carl’s excellent articles refer directly to the original papers–many of them available online. Because of the intrinsic interest in this phenomenon, I think you’ll find these papers very accessible to you and your students with Carl’s introduction.

An additional resource that you are going to want to check out is at the Harvard Forest website. There you’ll find a very comprehensive resource about the biology of Autumn Leaf Color as well as links to the pdf’s of many of the relevant research papers.

I hope to find time to dissect the questions that are asked in these articles and how you might want to do some investigating on your own in future postings. Consider reading these articles as you explore the woods this fall and let your own mind wander and find new questions about leaf color that you and your kids might try to answer.