Published: June 9, 2017

Evolutionary biology is a subject that unifies biology because it addresses questions about why the natural world is the way it is. This course focuses on the study of the principles of evolution and covers such topics as the origin of variation, how evolution happens, and the history of biological diversity on the planet from the origin of life to the present. 

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The curriculum for Evolutionary Biology EBIO 3080 was developed by professors Nancy Emery, Nolan Kane and Andrew Martin in a manner that uses research-supported best practices in higher education. The readings are provided free to students and students are encouraged to engage in critical and creative work in a respectful, inclusive, and supportive learning environment. 

We use research-supported best practices that have been shown to produce significant learning gains. Our approaches include the following: (click on each one for examples)

Visual representations of biology have been widely used by scientists to understand and explain phenomena, from the representational anatomical works of Leonardo da Vinci to the theoretical phylogenetic work of Charles Darwin. We encourage students to create drawings (illustrations) as a means of better understanding details of experimental design, where data comes from, and as a means of activating the brain in ways that advance creative and critical thinking. For more information, see Quillin and Thomas

Examples of student illustrations of experimental design used for testing the predictions of evolutionary hypotheses:

Experimental design guppiesIllustration sex fitness experiment

Top. Experimental design of guppy predation. Bottom. Experimental design for estimating survival of asexual and sexual snails to test the predictions of theory


Annotation is an important tool for students to "own" the information in tables, graphs, or text based descriptions of the world. Students write directly on graphs with the goal of making the relevant information evident in a manner that facilitates making evidence-based claims and teaching each other. 

Annotation of a complex figure

An example of student annotations that illustrates an emphasis on gaining relevant information from visualizations of data.

Concept maps are explicit descriptions of knowledge and the inter-connections among key concepts. Concept maps "...provide a unique window into the way learners structure their knowledge, offering an opportunity to assess both the propositional validity and the structural complexity of the knowledge base." (Pearsall et al. 1993: 198).  

Portion of a concept map

Students set up and evaluate analytical models to explore evolution. For example, students derive a simple two phenotype model (e.g. for two asexual and sexual reproduction) and explore the conditions that promote change in the characteristics of the population over time. The derived analytical model, ∆p = pqs/W, indicates that evolution is directly proportion to the amount of variation (pq) and the strength of natural selection (s) and inversely proportional to average fitness (W).

Students construct R scripts to simulate evolution or investigate the dependence of evolution on the magnitude of selection. Here is an example of a student's R script to simulation 10 generations of evolution assuming a two-fold cost of sex

#simulating evolution using a simple two phenotype model

#make a vector to store values of p
p <- rep(NA, 10)

#initialize the vector with the observed frequency of asexuals
p[1] <- 0.05

#simulate evolution
for (i in 1:9){
  W <- p[i] + (1-p[i])*0.5
  p[i + 1] <- p[i]/W

#plot the data
plot(1:6, p, xlab="Generations", ylab="Frequency of asexuals", type="l", cex=2, ylim=c(0,1), xlim=c(1,10), xaxt="n")
points(1:10, p, pch=19)
axis(1, seq(1,10), seq(0,5))

Students design and illustrate experiments to test hypotheses: in this case, the hypothesis is that tail length causes the variation in reproductive success of males. The hypothesis was based on an observation of a correlation in nature. 

Student cartoon of experimental design to study the effect of widow bird tail length on reproductive success of males

Collaboration involves people working together to solve problems and in the process individuals develop key skills including the ability to effectively communicate, listening for understanding, and sharing knowledge and skills that enable greater productivity than can be achieved by individuals acting alone. Importantly, collaboration builds communities.

Evidence of collaboration and community-building in EBIO:

Development of a social network in evolutionary biology during a semester (see Buchenroth-Martin 2016):

Each point is a student and lines indicate interactions that connect students.

Student Outcomes
Students often engage in an in depth study of a topic of interest and present the results of their work in a public symposium. Student products are often posters, but there are examples of videos, written case studies, and presentations. The pictures below are examples of student work. You can learn more about a particular project by clicking on the images below.

Evolution Student Outcomes

Case Studies in Evolution iBook

Case Studies in Evolution iBook

July 5, 2017

Description of project The Fall 2016 EBIO 3080 class produced a series of case studies focused on evolutionary biology. The case studies were edited, illustrated, and published as an iBook and is available for free download. Go to and search for the book.