Evolution Lab Guide for Educators

For discussion questions and lesson plans go to the Evolution Lab collection on PBS LearningMedia.

Lesson Summary

Everywhere you go on this planet—on land, underground, in the air, and in the water—you’ll find life that has been shaped by evolution. In NOVA’s Evolution Lab, students will explore the evidence of evolution through the lens of phylogeny.

The Evolution Lab contains two main parts:

  • Build A Tree: Students build phylogenetic trees themed around the evidence of evolution, including fossils, biogeography, and similarities in DNA. Students use both morphology and analysis of DNA sequences to identify relationships between species and to organize species and traits into phylogenetic trees. Along the way, students will watch seven videos that introduce the missions and give context for how the theme of each mission helps us understand how evolution has shaped life on Earth.
  • Deep Tree: Students explore an interactive tree of life and trace the shared ancestry of numerous species. Deep Tree helps students understand the scope of deep time and the points at which speciation occurred throughout evolutionary history on Earth.

Students will complete the Evolution Lab with an understanding of how to build phylogenetic trees and the evidence for evolution. The Evolution Lab is best used as an introduction to an evolution unit. Students should possess prerequisite knowledge of the structure of DNA in order to complete several of the missions.

Time Allotment

1.5 hours for Build A Tree game; 4 hours for entire Evolution Lab lesson plan with worksheets. 

The Evolution Lab is designed to be implemented in a teaching unit over the course of several class sessions. Teachers should allot about 3 hours to complete both the game and the worksheets. The missions must be completed in chronological order.

NOTE: The Deep Tree is an open-ended activity with no time commitment.

Grade Level

6th-12th grade

Standards Alignment Guide

The Evolution Lab reinforces core life sciences ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards. To see how the Evolution Lab can be used to meet course objectives, download our standards alignment document below:

Evolution Lab Standards Alignment Guide (102.5 KB)

Support Guide

Below is a support guide for the Evolution Lab that includes an overview of technology requirements and instructions for playing through Build A Tree and navigating Deep Tree.

Evolution Lab Support Guide (3.8 MB)


These worksheets contain questions for each level and video of the Evolution Lab and provide assessment on topics like cladograms, fossil evidence of evolution, DNA and genetics, biogeography, applications of phylogeny to health, and human evolution. The worksheets are divided into missions and are designed to be completed while playing through the game. The worksheets feature multiple choice questions, short response questions, and cladogram drawings.

Evolution Lab Worksheets (4.1 MB)

Content Objectives

  • Students will be able to describe the key mechanisms by which evolution occurs.
  • Students will be able to explain the evidence for evolution via the fossil record, DNA, and biogeography.
  • Students will be able to describe specific examples of evolution case studies, such as the evolution of birds, whales, and humans.
  • Students will be able to cite applications of phylogeny in health and medicine.

Process Objectives

  • Students will be able to build and analyze phylogenetic trees.
  • Students will be able to identify patterns of shared ancestry via Deep Tree


  • The Evolution Lab is accessible on web and mobile browsers that support HTML5.
  • Students are encouraged to login via a PBS, Gmail, or Facebook account in order to save their progress. Students can quickly create a PBS account using their email address and a password

  • Optional: medium sized poster boards, art supplies, and printer for lesson plan activities.

Alternatively, students can also use PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or other digital presentation software for the lesson plan activity.

Multimedia Resources

The Evolution Lab includes seven short animated videos that introduce the missions and explore the evidence for evolution:

  • Describes how evolution is responsible for Earth’s biodiversity and explains the process of natural selection
  • Introduces students to the structure of phylogenetic tress and explains how to build and read them
  • Explains how fossils help us understand the history of life on Earth
  • Explains why DNA can give us better insight into the relationships between organisms and the changes that have occurred in a species over time
  • Explains how phylogenetic trees can help us understand the movement of organisms throughout evolutionary history
  • Introduces several applications of phylogenetic trees to understanding and treating diseases
  • Examines the recent appearance of human beings in the tree of life

Lesson Plan

This lesson plan was written in the 5-E format, a lesson plan model for guided inquiry in science classrooms.

Engage (15 min): Introductory activity that poses a question or calls upon prior knowledge

Before launching the Evolution Lab, present students with a selection of seven widely different species, including a plant, a fungus, two mammals, a reptile, a bird, and a dinosaur. Choose these species from the “Species” tab in Deep Tree. Instruct students to independently answer these questions:


  • If you were to categorize these organisms into a family tree, what methods would you use to categorize them?
  • Can you provide some examples of traits that you would use to categorize the organisms?

Encourage students to share their responses in a group discussion.

Prompt students to think about how we organize the biodiversity that exists on Earth and how we make connections between all the species that have ever lived on Earth. Show the following video:



  • What are the two key ingredients for natural selection?
  • Why does survival of the fittest not mean that the strongest or biggest survive? Can you think of examples where not being strong and big is an advantage?

Explore (60-90 minutes minimum): Students explore a hypothesis and collect data

Instruct students to complete the six missions of the Build A Tree game. Inform students that they will explore the evidence for evolution and how we can use phylogeny to understand the relationships between species.


  • These worksheets and interactive lessons are designed to be completed while playing through the Evolution Lab game and contain multiple choice and free response questions for each video and level of the game. Instruct students to read the instructions for every page and answer the questions after watching the video or completing that specific level of the Build A Tree game.
  • Students will have to refer to the completed tree and the species comparison tab of every level when answering all of the questions, so remind them to keep the level open while answering the questions.

Explain (15 min): Direct instruction and content delivery

Summarize the evidence for evolution via a lecture, class discussion, and/or analysis of case studies. For example:


  • Natural selection — explore case studies of adaptations produced by natural selection, such as camouflage and mimicry
  • Fossils — explore the process of radiometric dating and Earth’s evolutionary history timeline
  • DNA — explain the source of genetic variation and mutation in organisms, how that affects morphology, and how we can use clues in embryology to understand evolutionary history
  • Biogeography — describe how processes like gene flow and genetic drift can drive speciation

Elaborate (25 min): Direct instruction and content delivery

Instruct students to use Deep Tree to create a phylogenetic tree poster or digital presentation for the seven species that you presented in the introductory activity.


  • Instruct students to use the “Relate” functionality of Deep Tree to identify the shared traits of the seven different species and build a phylogenetic tree that highlights their relationships to each other. This activity should culminate in a poster board presentation of the phylogenetic tree or a digital presentation in the form of a PowerPoint. This activity can also be completed as a homework assignment or a scaffolded as a longer independent project if students analyze additional species.
  • Scaffold the activity for younger or lower performing students by instructing them to work collaboratively to build their phylogenetic tree. Feel free to modify the number of species that students use to create their phylogenetic tree poster or digital presentation.

Evaluate (20 min): Formal assessment (independent practice)

This part of the lesson can be integrated into the completion of the Evolution Lab worksheets while students are playing through the game. Students can also complete the video quizzes for a quick overview of the content. The Lab Report functionality (located on the upper right corner of the page if students are logged in) allows students to track their completion of the video quizzes and print out a record of it.

Educators should also use this opportunity to assess student learning with short response or essay questions summarizing the evidence for evolution and analyzing phylogenetic trees.


  • Outline how natural selection is a driving force of evolution in the example of the polar bear.
  • Summarize Darwin's contributions to our current understanding of evolution.
  • How does the use of DNA analysis help us better understand evolutionary history?
  • Describe some applications of phylogenetics to health and medicine.
  • Why is the tree of life a useful analogy to understand the history of life on Earth?

Teacher Tips for Using the Evolution Lab

The Evolution Lab is a great resource for educators who are beginning an evolution unit because it addresses the mechanisms of evolution and teaches students how to build and read phylogenetic trees. Here are some suggestions for effectively using it in the classroom:

  • Encourage students to create a NOVA Labs account before they start the Evolution Lab for at-home or in-class completion. With an account, students will be able to save their progress in the Lab and also generate a Lab Report that tracks their completion of the game and video quizzes.
  • Use the Evolution Lab video quizzes as a formative or summative assessment to gauge student understanding of the content.
  • After completing the Build A Tree game, facilitate an in-class discussion with students about the content and address any questions or confusion they may have about evolutionary concepts.
  • Encourage students to use Deep Tree as a research tool throughout your evolution unit. In your lessons, try to incorporate examples and case studies using organisms that appear in Deep Tree and encourage students to use the Relate function to trace shared ancestry of the organisms.

Additional Resources

NOVA's Resources

NOVA Evolution

NOVA’s collection of evolution resources includes free episodes, articles, and interactives that cover numerous evolution topics. Watch the “Becoming Human” mini-series, explore the human evolution timeline, and read articles about interesting evolution case studies.

PBS Evolution

This classic collection of resources covers the big ideas of Darwin, change, extinction, survival, sex, humans, and religion with videos, interactives, and interviews.

External Resources

Understanding Evolution

Understanding Evolution is your one-stop shop for teaching and learning about evolution from kindergarten through college. Get friendly, clear background information as well as animations, comics, interactive investigations, news briefs, research profiles, and a database of free, vetted lessons for your classroom.

Understanding Evolution

The National Center for Science Education is the only national organization devoted to defending the teaching of evolution in public schools. NCSE's Evolution Primers are written by NCSE's scientific staff to explain key concepts or findings in evolution that are frequently misrepresented by creationists.

Shape of Life

Shape of Life is a series of short classroom videos that depict evolution of the animal kingdom on Earth. Shape of Life focuses on biodiversity, adaptability, body structure, design, behaviors, and the innovative scientists who explore these creatures. Shape of Life includes videos, lesson plans, readings aligned with the Common Core, illustrations, and relevant resources.

Birds-of-Paradise Project

The birds-of-paradise are among the most beautiful creatures on earth—and an extraordinary example of evolutionary adaptation. On this site you can find what few have witnessed in the wild: the displays of color, sound, and motion that make these birds so remarkable. Then you can delve deeper, examining the principles that guided their evolution and the epic adventure it took to bring us all 39 species. There are also free lesson plans that explore the topics of the scientific process, natural and sexual selection, behavior, and heritability through hands-on activities and lively discussions: http://www.birdsleuth.org/paradise/.

All About Fancy Males

All About Fancy Males is an eight section online interactive developed to accompany one of the most respected introductory evolution courses in the country—Cornell University's Evolution and Biology and Diversity. This interactive allows students and the general public to develop a solid understanding of fundamental concepts in evolution while exploring rare behavioral clips and engaging animations.

Speciation: An Illustrated Introduction

There is a dizzying diversity of species on our planet. From genetic evidence we know that all of those species evolved from a single ancient ancestor. But how does one species split into many? Through the evolutionary process of speciation—which begins when populations become isolated by changes in geography or by shifts in behavior so that they no longer interbreed. The speciation process is the basis of earth’s biodiversity.

Natural & Sexual Selection: An Illustrated Introduction

How does evolution happen? Through a gradual process called selection. Individuals that are better equipped to survive and reproduce pass those traits to their offspring. These “selected” changes accumulate over thousands of years. We tend to think of natural selection—”survival of the fittest”—but sexual selection works the same way and can be just as strong in shaping how species look and act.