Engaging Galápagos Students and Educators in Evolutionary Activities

This blog post is by Madison Bovee, Alexa Warwick, John G. Phillips, Brant G. Miller, and Christine Parent.

Evolutionary research is conducted across the globe, yet no location may be as emblematic as the Galápagos Islands (Figure 1). Made famous by Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835, long term research on the islands continues to advance the field of evolution. Even though international scientists frequently conduct research in locations like the Galápagos, all too often they collect data and leave without significant engagement with local communities and stakeholders. Given that evolution is a critical yet challenging topic to learn, efforts to engage these communities could help highlight the importance of the ecosystem they live in for evolutionary advances.

Figure 1. A map of the Galápagos Islands denoting the geological age of each island and sampling locations used by the Parent Lab in their evolutionary research on snails. Figure courtesy of Phillips et al. 2020. ES = Española, FA = Fernandina, FL = Floreana, PA = Pinta, RA = Rábida, SC = Santa Cruz, SA = Santiago SL = San Cristóbal. Isabela samples are partitioned by volcano: AL = Alcedo, DA = Darwin, CA = Cerro Azul, SN = Sierra Negra, WF = Wolf.

In Ecuador specifically, previous work has shown only 50% of the population are accepting of evolution, placing them 14th out of the 19 Latin American countries surveyed, and lower than most European countries (Pew Research Center 2014, Miller et al. 2006). Thus, it seems the evolutionary lessons from iconic organisms like the finches and tortoises have had a much greater impact outside of Ecuador than within its borders. Dr. Christine Parent’s lab at the University of Idaho (UI) has a history of public engagement in the Galápagos Islands using her research on snails (Parent and Crespi 2006, 2009; Parent et al. 2008, Kraemer et al. 2019, Phillips et al. 2020). Last year we began collaborating with one of the local Galápagos schools: Tomas de Berlanga School in Bellavista (island of Santa Cruz), thanks to funding from BEACON (DBI-0939454) and the National Science Foundation (#1751157 to Dr. Parent).

The team consisted of Dr. Parent, Dr. John Phillips (Parent Lab postdoc), Dr. Brant G. Miller (UI education faculty), Madison Bovee (UI pre-service elementary teacher), and Dr. Alexa Warwick (MSU faculty). We had the opportunity to work with students aged 9–11 years old. Our goal was to expose them to the fundamental importance of evolution in biology and in their everyday lives. We used inquiry-based learning strategies to enhance their understanding of basic evolutionary and ecological principles by using the ecosystems in their own backyard. We had three full days to help students become more familiar with evolutionary research within the Galápagos Islands.

Day one consisted of evaluating the students’ familiarity with the theory of evolution and practicing data collection and inference. The students were split into three smaller groups each led by one of our team members and assisted by a local teacher. First, we discussed how to make thoughtful observations and then asked them to observe their surroundings on a diversity walk that was literally in a park near their school. Students recorded their observations in their journals by completing the following prompts: “I notice”,  “I wonder”, and “It reminds me of”.  This activity allowed the students to start thinking like a scientist. Next they worked in pairs to analyze authentic science data as part of a Data Nugget, followed by group discussion about what they learned.

Student observation in her notebook about the finch (‘el pinzon’) and wondering how it can sit on a cactus without hurting itself.

A pair of students working on a Data Nugget.

As the students were now prepared to think more abstractly, day two focused on evolutionary learning and preparation to have the students create their own inquiry projects. To start the day we had two scientists present, Dr. Christine Parent and Dr. Satoshi Chiba (Tohoku University), who have been conducting snail research on the Galápagos and other oceanic islands. These presentations showed the students exciting examples of evolutionary research and highlighted the value and unique opportunities that come from research in the Galápagos Islands. Students then explored evolutionary ideas through the bird beak activity, inspired by beak evolution of finches in the Galápagos. Students used different tools to represent a bird’s beak and considered the relationship between the beak and a bird’s ability to find food and survive in a given environment. Finally, we ended the day with each of the three groups of students coming up with 50 questions about snails. We then discussed what makes a question testable and whether we could answer the question within our time frame and other restrictions (only collecting snail shells rather than live snails). Once the question was selected students discussed their methodology and materials to prepare for day three.

Dr. Parent presenting to all the students.

Exploring evolution with the bird beak activity.

Day three solely consisted of the students investigating their inquiry-based question about snails, by collecting and analyzing data to make claims answering their selected question. The three groups and all chose similar, but unique questions that they felt were testable and interesting. We had the opportunity to conduct this exercise on a local coffee plantation to collect our data by looking for snail shells. Each group then prepared and presented their results.

Looking for snail shells for their inquiry projects.

Holding snail shells found on the diversity walk.

A group of students presenting their project results.

The students grew within these three days tremendously and so did the team. We had to overcome barriers that we didn’t expect, such as the language barrier (it was a bilingual school but the younger students were not as comfortable with English), lack of knowledge of the students’ background in science, and how active and energetic the students were. However, we adapted to these changes within the first day and we used these barriers to our advantage. For example, we were able to enhance their background in evolution on the first day which led to our other two days running smoother since we knew what knowledge they were relying on. We also created lessons that were culturally relevant and used hands-on activity which helped the students relate to our lessons.

Our efforts were successful as evaluated by the students’ pre- and post-assessments. Overall, 88% of the 42 students who completed the post-assessment agreed or strongly agreed that they liked science and 56% wanted to be a scientist. About half of the students (52%) agreed or strongly agreed that different organisms can have the same common ancestor and just under half (45%) said they could explain how natural selection worked. Thus, we think their knowledge about evolution grew and their curiosity sparked. In addition, they learned more about the importance of the Galapagos in conducting scientific research, and 71% responded to the post-assessment question “Why do you think the Galápagos attracts so many scientists?” with mention of the unique plants and animals found there. For example, one student wrote “Hay especies endemicas, cual significa, que están ubicadas en un solo lugar en el mundo, en este caso Galápagos” (There are endemic species, which means that they are located in only one place in the world, in this case Galápagos).  We also taught them how to do inquiry-based research and helped these students to “think like a scientist”. When they were asked what the most interesting thing they learned, 76% mentioned the snails, suggesting their experience investigating their own snail questions was impactful. For example, one student wrote “De trabajar en grupo y sobre los caracoles” (working in groups and about the snails). This inquiry experience is a tool they will be able to use the rest of their lives and now they also have the information to use this tool right in their backyard.

Finally, we greatly appreciate the assistance from the local teachers with classroom management and translating instructions during the three days of working with the students, as well the school administrators with logistics and planning, especially Michelle Rothenbach and Justin Scoggin. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with teachers and students from the Tomas de Berlanga School on evolutionary education in the future.

An overview of NSF-REU funded undergraduate research conducted in conjunction with our BEACON outreach can also be found here: https://www.uidaho.edu/sci/biology/news/features/2019/galapagos


Kraemer, A. C., Philip, C. W., Rankin, A. M., & Parent, C. E. (2019). Trade-offs direct the evolution of coloration in Galápagos land snails. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences, 286(1894), 1–9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.2278

Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., & Okamoto, S. (2006). Public Acceptance of Evolution. Science, 313(5788), 765–766. doi: 10.1126/science.1126746

Parent, C. E., & Crespi, B. J. (2009). Ecological opportunity in adaptive radiation of Galápagos endemic land snails. American Naturalist, 174(6), 898–905. doi: 10.1086/646604

Parent, C. E., & Crespi, B. J. (2006). Sequential Colonization and Diversification of Galápagos Endemic Land Snail Genus Bulimulus (Gastropoda, Stylommatophora). Evolution, 60(11), 2311. doi: 10.1554/06-366.1

Pew Research Center. 2014. Religion in Latin America: Widespread change in a historically catholic region.

Phillips, J. G., Linscott, T. M., Rankin, A. M., Kraemer, A. C., Shoobs, N. F., & Parent, C. E. (2020). Archipelago-wide patterns of colonization and speciation among an endemic radiation of Galápagos land snails. Journal of Heredity, esz068, 92–102. doi: 10.1093/jhered/esz068.

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