Monday, 10 September 2007

Genetics for babies

This knitted DNA model is irresistible ! Wish my knitting was good enough to make one.

Genetics for younger children

We've been reading and enjoying this, and the companion book on genetics, Have A Nice DNA. There is some overlap between the two books. The same author has two other books, titled: Amazing Schemes Within Your Genes and DNA Is Here To Stay. I haven't been able to tell if these are older versions of the same books or if there is a difference in content or level.

It seems that all four books are bright and varied enough to hold the interest of pre-elementary children who have heard of DNA and want to know more, and may be getting over-simplistic by the time children reach the end of elementary education.

PBS Evolution Series Website

The PBS Evolution series was first broadcast in 2001. For anyone who wasn't in the process of educating children at that date, it's worth looking at. The website has tons of information in various media, an online course for teachers, lesson plans for children, a shop where you can buy the videos, etc..

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Bore me to Tears

Bore me to Tears is a very interesting blog, but it also seemed the aptest title I could think of for a post about 'that movie'. Lynn has some comments on Expelled, a movie that I suppose we are all going to be forced to know about. It's also an ongoing subject of posts (here and here and here) on the part of one of the unwitting probable villains of the show, over at Pharyngula. The premise of the movie, taken from it's own site:
Ben (Stein) realizes that he has been “Expelled,” and that educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired – for the “crime” of merely believing that there might be evidence of “design” in nature, and that perhaps life is not just the result of accidental, random chance.
So... not really about evolved homeschoolers... Still, I have a feeling it's going to be a hot topic for a while. Oh boy!

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Picture books and read-aloud books on evolution for younger children

I thought I’d post the results of my search for books on evolution for my own child, just starting Grade 1. I haven’t included anything in this list that seemed too technical or definitely for older children. I’ve also left books on Darwin, genetics and other related topics aside. I certainly haven’t read all these books, but I’ll post a review of the one I eventually chose in the comments section. If you’ve read any of these books, please feel free to do the same.

Here are the three picture books that tend to come up first in searches. They are probably the most obvious choices for this age group.
  • Life On Earth: the story of evolution; Steve Jenkins
  • Our Family Tree: an evolution story; Lisa Westberg Peters
  • The Tree of Life: the wonders of evolution; Ellen Jackson

And these two books, on the other hand, seem relatively obscure

  • How Life Began; Melvin Berger
  • Origins of Life; Linda Gamlin
Some authors cover cosmology and evolution either in a single book, or as a series. A few reviewers have noted the spiritual cast of the Morgan books, written from the point of view of a conscious, caring, universe. This reflects the author’s involvement in this organization, to which she donates some of the profits from her books. The Maddern set, listed in the section for the youngest children also covers the formation of the earth and the evolution of life.
  • Born with a Bang: the universe tells our cosmic story; Jennifer Morgan
  • From Lava to Life: the universe tells our earth story; Jennifer Morgan
  • Mammals who Morph: the universe tells our evolution story; Jennifer Morgan
  • Life Story; Virginia Lee Burton

A few books for this age group seem to approach evolution through specific species or groups or animals. It’s difficult to find out much about Shealy’s dinosaur book. The McNulty book on whales appears to be extremely well thought of.

  • Dinosaurs Alive: the dinosaur-bird connection; Dennis R. Shealy
  • How Whales Walked into the Sea; Faith McNulty
These authors below seem most likely to be suitable for the very youngest children. A review on complains that Harris is too simplistic for the early grades. On Amazon in the UK, the Harris and Maddern books are placed in the 0-2 age group category! The Cole book is the only one to have earned this distinction in the US, but reviewers seem to feel it will do well for early grades as well.
  • Earth Story and Life Story (2 books); Eric Maddern
  • The Story of Life on Earth; Nicholas Harris
  • Evolution: let's read and find out; Joanna Cole

Saturday, 4 August 2007

The Beagle Project

Humble at Free Range Academy has an update on the Beagle Project, who are planning to build a replica of Darwin's Beagle by 2009. Well worth checking out, and I daresay they would appreciate donations large or small. I was chatting with the crew of a similar ship just a fortnight ago, and they were telling me how infernally expensive the things are to build and run.

Friday, 29 June 2007

The Tree of Life Web Project - review and quick start guide

The Tree of Life Web Project sets out to catalogue the species of the Earth, and their evolutionary relationships to each other. It isn't complete, but still contains huge amounts of information. Still, the incompleteness can be frustrating when it relates to something you wanted to look up. And using the tree may take a little getting used to. There are huge numbers of groups of species (clades) with names little known to most lay people. The Tree of Life was originally intended for biologists, and it is only slowly expanding to suit other users. I found the documentation provided by the Tree of Life of limited helpfulness. But it's still an amazing resource, and it grew on me as I kept thinking of things to do with it. Below are a list of mini-investigations using the Tree of Life, that might help some people get started.

What is a phylogenetic tree?

Before exploring the Tree of Life, by yourself, or with children, you might want to know what it is? A good basic guide to understanding what a phylogenetic tree does can be found here, at Berkeley's Understanding Evolution site.

Find human beings from the root of the tree

A first, and very simple exploration within the Tree of Life.
  1. First go to the root of the Tree of Life.

  2. From there, click on the following links to navigate through the Tree of Life to Homo Sapiens:

    Eukaryotes | Animals | Bilateria | Deuterostomia | Chordata | Craniata | Vertebrata | Gnathostomata | Sarcopterygii | Terrestrial Vertebrates | Amniota | Synapsida | Therapsida | Mammalia | Eutheria | Primates | Catarrhini | Hominidae | Homo | Homo Sapiens

    By scrolling down the Homo Sapiens page to Information on the Internet, you can find a large number of resources on human ancestry and human beings in general. Or you could just admire the image of Charles Darwin as an example of a European male.
Finding the species you want:

For most investigations, you will need to home in on a species or group near the outlying parts of the tree. Type the name of the species into the search engine in the top right hand corner. The common name might get you the answer you want, but in practice, I've found the scientific name works better. The easiest way I know to get the scientific name of most species is to look them up in Wikipedia.

There is a further issue: the Tree of Life isn't down to species level in many places, so you may have to choose a broader family name. There are also minor mis-matches between some names used on the Tree of Life and those given in Wikipedia, and there are lots of extra levels in the Tree.

Trace a species backwards through the Tree:

  1. Type the name of your species into the search box in the top right hand corner. I wanted to trace the Swallow, so I typed in the family name Hirundinidae.

  2. The search engine offered the page Sylvioidea, on which the Hirundinidae appear as a branch. The tree currently goes no further than this, so it's lucky I didn't try an individual species name.

  3. From here, it's easy to trace the species back through the tree, by clicking on the arrow to the left of the tree diagram. In some places, there is no tree, but a list of species. In this case there is a Containing Group label under the list instead. Here is the list of pages for Swallows.

    Hirundinidae | Sylvioidea | Passerida | Oscines | Passeriformes | Neoaves | Neornithes | Aves | Coelurosauria | Theropoda | Dinosauria | Archosauria | Archosauromorpha | Diapsida | Amniota | Terrestrial Vertebrates | Sarcopterygii | Gnathostomata | Vertebrata | Craniata | Chordata | Deuterostomia | Bilateria | Animals | Eukaryotes | Root

    By default, the section under the tree diagram on most pages discusses the phylogenetic relationships. You can find out whether they are controversial and what they are based on. In the case of Swallows, I discovered that Passeriformes can be generalised as perching birds, while the sub-group Oscines are what we commonly call song birds. Below this are the references, which could be useful for research projects at higher levels.
Find out how closely related two species are

At first I thought I would try to trace the relationship between the Dandelion and the Daisy, but I gave up, as this part of the tree seemed very incomplete. I settled instead for the Ladybug and a common European beetle, the Gendarme. These are very superficially similar in appearance, being red with black markings, just close enough to sometimes be confused by very young children.
  1. Just trace each species backwards through the tree, until you reach a point where their ancestry is identical.
Coccinellidae (ladybugs) | Ccujoidea | Cucujiformia | Polyphaga | Coleoptera | Endopterygota | > Neoptera - turning point < | Hemipteroid Assemblage | Hemiptera | Heteroptera | Pentatomomorpha | Pyrrhocoroidea (gendarmes)

Neoptera is the containing group for both species, and since it contains rather a large proportion of all insects, that would make them pretty distant cousins. It would be interesting to know whether they adopted the same colour scheme for the same reasons, and whether they use the same chemicals to produce it.

Research a related group of species

If the tree has been completed for the species you are interested in, you could obtain: a list of related species, information about how they relate to other groups, and access to other resources on the Internet. At first I thought I would look up deer, since I remembered wondering how many kinds there are. I found the Cervidae under Ruminantia, but the tree hasn't been extended any further as yet. So I reverted to Penguins (Spheniscidae).

This time I struck gold, since there is a page for the Spheniscidae family with resources, and one for each individual species, with more resources, including several aimed at children or educators. By going up the tree, I can also see that the penguin branch separated from other birds at a fairly early stage - but after ducks!

Find out more about the Tree of Life

About the Tree of Life Web Project
The TOL Learning Tour
The Introduction to Learning with the TOl - a class project
The TOL Learning pages

You will find plenty of information about treehouses on the last page. This is an opportunity to work with the tree of life that is potentially of interest to homeschoolers, though it is not clear how active it is at the moment. The site promises modifications to make it more friendly to child-learners in the near future.