Making the NGSS and 3-D Learning Real for Students: Hands on Hominid Skull Evolution Investigations

Grant Date
Grant Applicant
David Steakley
Amount Funded
Description (10 points)

Specific Program Objective: This grant seeks funding to purchase a set of Hominid skull replicas for use in a hands-on unit on Hominid evolution and human ancestry for 9th grade biology at North Tahoe High School. Students will examine the skulls physically, using information about skull features as well as using information about geographic site at which the skull was discovered, and DNA sequence data related to the skulls to make inferences about the processes and mechanisms of human evolution. This will introduce students to the broader principles of evolution as a mechanism of change in biological organisms. Importance of Program Objective: This unit represents a significant improvement on how science courses typically discuss and engage with the content regarding human evolution, and the introduction of evolutionary mechanisms, and supports the shift toward the state-adopted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). With the transition to the NGSS, students need to do more than simply read and understand biological principles to demonstrate mastery of content. They need to directly engage with material, be able to form and test their own hypotheses based on primary data, and use that information to drive their own learning. This unit, as described in this sections below, is a great example of student-centered, NGSS-aligned curriculum. As the district broadly transitions to NGSS science instruction, students students will need to engage in lessons like this in order to build the 21st century skills. This skills are paramount for success in future science careers, and success on upcoming NGSS-aligned science assessments.

Benefits of Program (10 points)

Funding this proposal will have durable and long-term benefits to the student population at North Tahoe High School. The purchase of Hominid skull replicas will allows this curriculum to be delivered to all 9th grade biology students at NTHS as part of their 9th grade biology course. The skulls will be used from year to year, and because all 9th graders take biology, this curriculum will benefit the entire school population over time. Numerous empirical studies demonstrated that student-centered, hands-on curriculum, like this unit, increases student learning outcomes in a variety of ways. This unit (and the resources required to perform it) allow students to physically engage with real science data, and form their own conclusions based on their observations. It also allows them to arrive at universal truths about mechanisms of evolution by generating and testing hypothesis themselves rather than reading information from a book and taking it as fact. By providing opportunities for students to stretch their critical thinking skills and "act like scientists" while they look at real science data, they are able to internalize the information in a far deeper and more authentic way. Not only does this type of learning experience motivate and engage students, these skills are cross-curricular in that they allow students to create meaningful argumentation from evidence and use quantitative arguments to support their ideas, having far-reaching benefits across subject areas.

Success of Program (10 points)

Discrete program success: This program will be a success if students are able to use the resources to master the specific content referenced in the unit. General program success: As described above, this program will allow students to engage in scientific content in an authentic, hands-on way. This leads to more generalized success by having a positive impact on student motivation and engagement with the subject matter, by supporting 21st century skills development, and pushing students to create meaningful argumentation from evidence and use quantitative arguments to support their ideas. Evidence to support discrete and general success: Before coming to North Tahoe High School, I taught in another district where I worked in a small team of teachers to write this unit as a part of the transition to NGSS. I have delivered this hands-on curriculum to students previously and had the opportunity to conduct analysis comparing my summative assessment data and with assessment data from teachers who taught the same content in a traditional manner (book readings, chapter tests etc.) This comparison showed that my students saw significantly more growth and higher levels of content retention. I plan to deliver the same summative assessment this year and to use it to evaluate student learning and growth. Beyond specific student summative assessment data, this unit and program will be successful if students leave the classroom curious about the Hominid evolution ideas we have discussed, and are inspired to to learn more and answer their own questions about this topic using evidence. Beyond covering specific performance standards and content, this unit seeks to allow students to experience how "real science" gets done, and how ideas are shaped by data and curiosity to arrive at the ideas we currently think of as correct. Initial evidence suggests that these types of NGSS-aligned learning experience foster this curiosity and better-prepare students for careers in the sciences.

Implementation (10 points)

The skulls will be used as a component of a 3 week mini-unit on Hominid evolution and human ancestry. This mini-unit serves as the beginning of a larger evolution unit in 9th grade biology. The unit begins with students examining the skulls and measuring their physical characteristics (size, brow ridge angle etc.) to build a "phylogenetic" or "evolutionary tree" for Hominid evolution based on their data. Students have to decide what characteristics are important and then make a claim about how they think human evolution may have occurred. They then compare their "evolutionary tree" to the commonly accepted "correct" tree and evaluate how their assumptions and observations compare to the commonly accepted interpretation. They also explore what their errors or differences might tell them. Next students plot the locations of where the skulls were recovered and the time they were alive on a map to track the evolution and migration of humans out of Africa and across the globe. Students use the "evolutionary trees" they built, and the dating of the fossil replicas, to build a cogent argument about how human migration occurred. Finally students examine DNA sequence data from living humans (freely available online) to try and validate the "evolutionary tree" and migration data they generated in the beginning of the unit. This way students see that the "correct" or current interpretation of the available data is based on multiple pieces of evidence. In conclusion, students complete a summative assessment by writing an scientific argument or abstract based on their analysis of the various classes of data and evidence to support a synthesis of their thinking about Hominid evolution and migration.

This project is sustainable and durable. This one-time funding will allow this course of study to be implemented every school year going forward at no cost. The lesson plans and student materials that facilitate the lessons using the skulls have already been generated and shared with teachers at no cost. The skulls themselves are not consumable, and will be cared for and stored at the school site to be reused yearly.
Can you share this grant with your grade level or subject team?

Yes, I have already generated all of the required student and teacher materials (besides the skulls themselves), and have discussed how they will be implemented by the other 9th grade biology teacher at NTHS. The materials are available for review on google drive at the link presented in the supporting links section. This unit will be implemented by other teachers at the site and I am willing and able to provide assistance and support, as needed, to ensure successful implementation.

Budget (10 points)
Amount Requested
Budget Notes

The specific skulls required to perform the unit are listed above. They are all museum-quality reproductions produced by an anthropological reproductions company so they are scientifically accurate to the original fossils they simulate. It is not possible to substitute alternatives for this grant.

Other funding sources

I did speak with my site team, and it is possible that site fund could be used to support this project, however, that would mean that money normally directed towards science class consumables (lab reagents etc.) would no longer be available for other science courses and some other specific labs may need to be removed from the curriculum because of a lack on funding for consumables.


Complete student lesson materials and the teacher overview describing the overall conceptual flow and sequence for the unit have already been created and are linked for review in the supporting link section. Please see the teacher overview for a detailed daily outline of lesson topics. Additionally, see the student materials section to better understand how students will be asked to engage with the skulls in class. (The link requires a e-mail for access. If this poses an access issues, please contact me and I can e-mail the materials directly.)