Evolutionary Technology: Using Google Earth, Cyber Databases, and Geotagged Photos to Enhance Students’ Scientific Practices and Understanding of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Shiang-Kwei Wang, Hui-Yin Hsu and Jean Posada
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In this activity students use Google Earth, Cyber Databases and Geotagged Photos to investigate how the morphology of the Galapagos finches are related to the environment where they live. Students need to be familiar with the natural selection model and Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos before doing this activity.  Then students are given a mission to help Darwin figure out if there are morphological differences among the finches located on the various islands.  After becoming familiar with how to use Google Earth, students choose a research question, form a hypothesis, select three species of Galapagos finches and use the website ARKIVE.org to gather data on various finch species residing on the Galapagos Islands and on the mainland of South America.   This data includes the name of the finch, its environmental niche, where it is found in the Galapagos Islands and its food source.  Students then collect images of the terrain and various finches, organize all the data into Google Earth, and make inferences about the relationship between the chosen species and their habitat.  Students then organize their information and present to the class.  

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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Performance Expectations

MS-LS4-4 Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using simple probability statements and proportional reasoning to construct explanations.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The sample lab report found in the Resources section at the end of the article (http://goo.gl/WNJnJ) guides students through relating the data that they gathered in the experiment with natural selection. The relationship of the shape of the bird’s beak to genetics will need to be made more explicit to students so that they can include that as a part of their conclusion. The data that they find in pictures and information on the finches will show morphological differences in the beaks that tie in with the habitat, but students will need to make inferences that there was variation in the population of a common ancestor to the three species that they chose and that those with the best adapted beaks in a particular environment survived, reproduced and passed on their genes.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students will use their prior knowledge of natural selection and the evidence that they collect from information and communication technologies such as Google Earth and Arkive to construct an explanation for how Galapagos finches came to live in various habitats. The explanation in the sample lab report is written in the form of Claim, Evidence and Reasoning. Students who are not familiar with this format of writing a scientific explanation may need guidance. Teachers could do a sample Claim, Evidence, Reasoning Explanation with the class to familiarize students with each of the components.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In this activity, students are connecting the data that they collect to natural selection. The lab report guides students in setting up their investigation, and has sections where students pose a problem, make a hypothesis, identify the independent and dependent variable, control and constants, outline their procedure, collect and analyze data and write a conclusion. Students are asked which factors contribute to natural selection, and other directions ask them to describe how the changing environments such as the food source affect the finches’ survival and why their evidence allowed them to determine how the food source affected the finches’ survival.It may be difficult for some students to connect their data to the natural selection model, so teacher guidance will be necessary. The type of guidance needed will vary with the data that students are analyzing and the prior experience of the students with the content.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students will use the data that they collect to identify patterns in the shape of finch beaks and how it is related to the habitat. They then are asked to explain how those patterns were caused by using the natural selection model. Teachers will need to help make this crosscutting concept explicit by helping students to see that the inferences that they made about relationships were based on finding the patterns with the finch beaks and their habitat.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: All of the dimensions are included in this activity, but the teacher may need to help students make connections between the three, so that students understand how they are linked. After writing their scientific explanation, students can be asked additional questions about the part that patterns played in their research since the explanation encompasses using the disciplinary core idea of natural selection. These ideas are not developed in this activity, but are used to apply to a real world (present day finches in the Galapagos Islands ) situation. This activity is best placed after students have developed the model of natural selection. By asking questions about a phenomenon, analyzing data by finding patterns connecting morphology and habitat, constructing explanations about natural selection, arguing about those explanations and obtaining, evaluating and communicating information,students apply and strengthen their understanding of the theory of evolution.

  • Instructional Supports: There are many supports for the teacher such as a description of the lesson plan, but it focuses more on having students find and organize the information and not as much guidance on how to draw conclusions. The phenomenon of finch beak size and shape as related to their habitat is an authentic scenario that reflects the practice of science. A sample lab report is included, but some parts, such as designing a controlled experiment for the data they collect might be confusing for students to apply to this particular activity, so they may need some support . Teachers may also want to be explicit in focusing students on making the connection between their data and the reasoning behind their conclusion. The activity asks students to express their ideas and argue their evidence, but no clear guidelines are given on how to do this. No suggestions are given for differentiated instruction.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: A sample lab report is included that guides students and helps teachers to assess student progress. There is also a rubric that outlines what students should know and be able to do. Teachers will need to determine whether a student is superficially engaged (for a score of 2), proficiently engaged (for a score of 3) or thoroughly engaged (for a score of 4). Having examples of each of these scores will help with the assessment.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Google Earth and ARKive.org are integral to the implementation of this activity since they use them to collect data about habitat and natural history of the finches related to their specific problem.