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Anytime Lesson Plan: Human Evolution


In this activity, students will learn how human evolution research starts with a question, that many questions about human evolution remained unanswered, and that science is an ongoing process of making observations, asking questions, collecting evidence, and making inferences and predictions based on that evidence, which then often leads to additional questions.


In this activity, students will:

  1. learn how human evolution research starts with a question.
  2. learn that many questions about human evolution remained unanswered.
  3. learn that science is an ongoing process of making observations, asking questions, collecting evidence, and making inferences and predictions based on that evidence, which then often leads to additional questions.


  • pencils
  • “Human Evolution: A Discovery Within” Worksheets (1 per student)
  • Human Evolution Resource Guide
  • Academy Videos from BioForum on Human Evolution


  • anthropologist: scientists who study the origin and behavior of humans.
  • evolution: changes in the heritable traits of a population of organisms as successive generations replace one another. It is populations of organisms that evolve, not individual organisms.
  • species: in sexually reproducing organisms, species consist of individuals that can interbreed with each other and produce fertile offspring.
  • speciation: the evolutionary processes through which new species arise from existing species.
  • paleontologist: a scientist who studies fossils to learn about ancient organisms.
  • paleoanthropologist: a scientist who studies fossils to learn about the anatomy of our ancestors.
  • fossil: a remnant or trace of an organism of a past geologic age, such as a skeleton or leaf imprint, embedded, and preserved in the Earth's crust, usually in stratified rock.
  • adaptation: the adjustment or changes in behavior, physiology, and structure of an organism to become more suited to an environment. According to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, organisms that possess heritable traits that enable them to better adapt to their environment compared with other members of their species will be more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass more of their genes on to the next generation.



  1. Ask students what they know about human evolution.  After allowing 5 minutes for students to brainstorm associated words and phrases, ask students to share their ideas in small groups.  Collect the topics that were recorded by asking students to write them on the board.  As each group comes up to the board, ask students to make tally marks next to the topics that other groups already wrote on the board.   After everyone records their data, circle the most frequently mentioned words on the board.  This will give you a starting point for introducing the concept of human evolution and connecting it with their prior knowledge. For example, if students mentioned the name “Lucy,” use the website list at the end of the lesson to pull a short summary of this discovery. Or, if the words include for instance, “fiction” or “false,” have a discussion with your students about evolution and address their questions.  You can use the NSTA website as a reference:   http://www.nsta.org/publications/evolution.aspx


  1. Tell students that you are going to be sharing some information with them from scientists who study human evolution. 
  2. Introduce the websites on the Human Evolution Resource Chart to students.
  3. Share one or more of the BioForum videos with your students.
  4. Tell students that this activity is going to make them think about all the questions that they have about human evolution, and whether the answers are known or unknown.
  5. Divide students into pairs.
  6. Tell students to work in pairs to think about the various questions. Emphasize that each student should complete their own sheet based on their own questions. Working in pairs is just to help each other generate ideas.
  7. Tell students that the left column of the sheet is to write down their questions. The second column is to write the answers that they find from using the resources on the Resource Chart.  Students should indicate which resource they use to answer the question.  The third column is to write down what evidence scientists use to answer the question or for questions unanswered what type of evidence might scientists might find in the future that could answer your question.
  8. Pass out the Human Evolution: A Discovery Within Worksheet.  Go over the example in the first row with students. When discussing the second column, tell students that their questions can be researched online using the different resources provided on the Resource Chart.
  9. Give students time to work with their partners to develop the rest of their questions.
  10. After 20 minutes of brainstorming have the students share their questions.
  11. Give students time in class or assign homework to read through the websites and watch the BioForum videos to find answers to their questions. 


  1. Once students have filled out their worksheets, bring the whole class together to have a discussion. 
  2. Ask students the following questions:
    • Were you able to find answers to all of your questions? (students may or may not find the answers to all of their questions)
    • Why do you think you were unable to find answers to all of your questions? (not all questions have been answered and science is an ongoing process)
    • Did everyone find the same answers to a question?  (students may notice that some websites give different information depending on the site)
    • If two people found different answers to the same question, why might this be? (different scientists sometimes have different interpretations of the same paleontological evidence)
    • What challenges might paleoanthropology researchers face when trying to find an answer to a particular question?  (evidence may not exist in the fossil record)


Follow this lesson with lessons on bipedalism from http://www.becominghuman.org/


The Last Human. (2007). Week 9: Land Use Change & Energy. Stanford, CA: Earth Systems 10 Teaching Assistant Team.

California Content Standards

Grades Nine - Twelve


  • 6g. Students know how to distinguish between the accommodation of an individual organism to its environment and the gradual adaptation of a lineage of organisms through genetic change.


  • 7a. Students know why natural selection acts on the phenotype rather than the genotype of an organism.
  • 7b. Students know why alleles that are lethal in a homozygous individual may be carried in a heterozygote and thus maintained in a gene pool.
  • 7c. Students know new mutations are constantly being generated in a gene pool.
  • 7d. Students know variation within a species increases the likelihood that at least some members of a species will survive under changed environmental conditions.
  • 7e. Students know the conditions for Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium in a population and why these conditions are not likely to appear in nature.
  • 7f. Students know how to solve the Hardy-Weinberg equation to predict the frequency of genotypes in a population, given the frequency of phenotypes.
  • 8a. Students know how natural selection determines the differential survival of groups of organisms.
  • 8b. Students know a great diversity of species increases the chance that at least some organisms survive major changes in the environment.
  • 8c. Students know the effects of genetic drift on the diversity of organisms in a population.
  • 8d. Students know reproductive or geographic isolation affects speciation.
  • 8e. Students know how to analyze fossil evidence with regard to biological diversity, episodic speciation, and mass extinction.
  • 8f. Students know how to use comparative embryology, DNA or protein sequence comparisons, and other independent sources of data to create a branching diagram (cladogram) that shows probable evolutionary relationships.
  • 8g. Students know how several independent molecular clocks, calibrated against each other and combined with evidence from the fossil record, can help to estimate how long ago various groups of organisms diverged evolutionarily from one another.



We use the scientific process to collect evidence and construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena. Our knowledge of human history is based on evidence that is collected by paleontologists from sites from all over the world including, but not limited to, Chad, Ethiopia, Spain, and China. Increasing amounts of direct fossil evidence have been uncovered to piece together the evolutionary history of hominins. 

There are many adaptations that have been identified as defining characteristics of humans and other hominins.  Scientists have seen changes in posture, brain size, locomotion, diet, behavior, and jaws and teeth throughout the fossil record.  New evidence is discovered everyday that helps to redefine the story of our ancestors. Key fossils that help define and identify a species are skulls or teeth.  These can be used to infer what types of food the hominins consumed, how old the specimen was when it died, and helps scientists begin to reconstruct how hominins lived. 

Science begins with a question, and sometimes the process of answering that question leads you in new directions.  This exercise will help students generate questions and demonstrate how scientific research can help answer those questions.  This activity may also show students that many questions remain unanswered, and that science is an ongoing process of asking questions, collecting evidence, making inferences and predictions based on that evidence, which then often leads to additional questions.


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