An Integrative Approach for Teaching and Learning About Biological Evolution Using Human Disease

Peter White
Associate Professor
Michigan State University

NEED:Two difficulties in teaching biology to undergraduate students using an evolutionary conceptual framework are: (1) the lack of clear connections between evolutionary patterns and processes; and (2) students’ apathy in evolutionary examples that don’t relate to humans. Cancer occurrence in humans presents a deeply relevant and biologically rich system for students to explore that helps them learn key introductory biology concepts, from micro-scale processes through to natural selection and beyond. Cancer cells themselves act like individuals within a greater population of cells; these rogue cells proliferate based on fitness advantages facilitated by random mutations that produce novel phenotypes. In this project, we developed and tested a set of flipped-course instructional materials where students explore the biology of breast cancer over the span of four weeks (8 class sessions). Our short instructional videos take students through a tour of breast cancer genetics, cell biology, cell ecology, evolutionary tradeoffs, traditional treatments, and adaptive therapy.GUIDING QUESTION:How will student understanding of evolution develop when they learn introductory biology concepts and processes using exemplars of human disease.OUTCOMES:We tested our breast cancer instructional materials across three sections of an introductory biology course (total # of students = 123). Students were given an open-ended evolution assessment before the 4-week cancer unit, and again at the end of the unit. The assessment primarily tested student ability to describe the process of evolution, and probed student thinking on how evolution might be related to adverse human health conditions. Students demonstrated learning gains in their ability to describe the evolutionary process after the breast cancer course unit.BROADER IMPACT:Thus far, our instructional materials have only been used at our home institution. We are planning to disseminate our videos and curricular materials via our website, and through our project youtube channel found at: We are also working on two papers describing our curricular materials, and their impact on students.


David Filice, Michigan State University; Merle Heidemann, Michigan State University; Jim Smith, Michigan State University