A Closer Look at Biology 1: Evolution, Biology’s Unifying Theme

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Author, Blair H. Lee, M.S., on the foundational rootings of our upcoming new release for elementary science students

Taking a walk outside, you might see birds flying, bees pollinating flowers, and a squirrel scampering up a tree right over a fungus growing from the bark. The theory of evolution tells us that these, and all, organisms are related. Because of their relatedness, organisms share fundamental characteristics and processes. They are all “similar but different.” Similar but different holds true if you are studying individuals of the same species. It also holds true for species as different from each other as birds and fungi.

Elementary level learners are the right age to learn about the connectedness of life. The facts they learn at this stage form the foundation future knowledge is built upon. The connections they make aid in their ability to understand higher level concepts through a process called metacognition. It was with this in mind that R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey Biology 1 was developed around biology’s unifying theme: evolution. The goal is to provide explanations for similarities that connect all life, while teaching about the differences between groups of organisms and within them.

Building an elementary biology course around the theory of evolution with a focus on similar but different profoundly changed the presentation of topics. Like most biology courses, R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey Biology 1 explains early in the course about the characteristics non-viral organisms share. Later in the course, anatomy and physiology are taught through the lens of these characteristics. For example, in the chapter covering how all organisms respond to their environment, the discussion covers how those with a nervous system, like people and tardigrades, and those without one, like plants and unicellular microbes, respond to their environment. Connections are made, such as when kids work on side-by-side models of a human nervous system and the nervous system of a tardigrade, and differences are explained. Working through the course prepares for discussions about topics like why a microscopic animal does not need lungs but a people-sized one does!

R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey Biology 1 is conceptual and comprehensive. The course has six units that build in complexity incorporating vocabulary and concepts from previous lessons.

Unit 1: The Study of Life – In this unit, students meet the narrator of the course, a funny, feisty tardigrade named Bear. Bear narrates with a sense of wonder right along with students as they learn about biology. Students also learn how scientists define what is living and what is not through the characteristics of life.

Unit 2: Building Blocks of Life – Cells and genetic material are the focus of this unit. Genetics is covered on a very basic level with a focus on those aspects shared by all DNA and how differences in DNA can lead to different traits.

Unit 3: Characteristics of Life – In Unit 1, students learned about the characteristics of life. The focus in this unit is on how similarities and differences in anatomy and physiology allow different organisms to meet those characteristics. This is a fascinating area of biology, filled with lots of ah ha information. For example, have you ever thought about how insects move? It turns out they have muscles connected to the hard outer shell of their exoskeleton that work just like a person’s muscles do. The next time you watch a bee in flight, think about how hard their muscles are working.

Unit 4: Evolution – Once students have learned about genetics, anatomy, and physiology, they are ready to learn the basics of evolution. This unit covers common ancestors, fossil formation, mutations, natural selection, and of course, evolution! The discussion is on a basic introductory level, with hands-on labs as students learn by doing.

Unit 5: Ecology – In the unit focused on ecology, students learn about ecosystems, food webs, biomes, and the environment. When developing the course, it was important to honor scientists’ current understanding of best practices for ecosystems. Because of the risk of adding invasive species to your ecosystem, no live animals are used in any of the labs in this course.

Unit 6: The Evolutionary Tree – In the final unit, learners build a model of an evolutionary tree over successive lessons. This model is an important visual representation of similar but different. It ties the course together, showing the evolutionary history of groups of organisms, including why birds are dinosaurs but lizards are not. Bacteria, archaea, plants, fungi, and animals are a part of the model. It also covers the evolution of the cell, including the endosymbiotic theory. Connections are made between common ancestors and placement on the tree. Differences are covered as branches diverge from each other.

In addition to the fact-based and conceptual aspects, as with all R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey courses, the labs and activities use a scaffolding approach to help students build their skills in critical thinking and the practices and procedures integral to science. The scientific method, basic lab report writing, and the use of observation to form conclusions are learning skills incorporated into the course. Scientific modeling is also included to help learners get a better understanding of more complicated systems. The intentional scaffolding and “learn by doing” approach lead to a more complete understanding of how scientists conduct science and of how science works.


This is the first in a multi-part series of blog posts from scientists and curriculum developer, Blair Lee. Follow this blog for articles focused on scientific modeling, learning skills as a part of science, and how stronger critical thinking skills are a natural outcome from learning science.

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