As explained above, the theoretical didactic assumption of this experience was that a mastery of these four concepts could facilitate meaningful learning of the evolutionary theory by improving the learners’ ability to think about evolution, changing, or improving pre-existing approaches, ideas, and knowledge. As a consequence, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of this experience, it seemed appropriate to investigate eventual impacts on students’ mental connections and understanding about evolution, their change of ideas, new knowledge, and approaches.
A small sample of pilot classes (three of primary school, total student number 71, aged 9 to 11; three of middle school of which two classes included students aged 12–13 and one class 14–15, total student number 70; two high school classes, total student number 47, aged 16–17) were followed and monitored by myself and constantly observed by another researcher.
Different evaluation strategies were utilized that will be discussed in the next section. Tools for evaluation were constituted by the following:
The brief notes compiled in the Darwin exhibits before the beginning of the guided experiences/visits to the other sections of the exhibition: Primary school students were asked only about Darwin; middle and high school students were asked about Darwin and evolution (“your ideas about evolution”), presuming some pre-existing beliefs or school knowledge about this topic. Compilation of the sheets was free in order to allow students to express the main (more frequent and presumably more “internalized” and stable) concepts that they associated spontaneously to evolution.
Personal individual notebooks containing open-ended questions (a sort of semi-structured interview) and free space for comments and drawings that students compiled in the museum before, during, and after their observations and practical experiences. The compilation “before” aimed at activating students’ interests, to recall and record in the notebooks their pre-existing knowledge. The compilation “during” aimed at directing students’ attention at the practical and mental passages of their experiences and at their personal reflections. In fact, I considered it fundamental to make them aware of their own learning processes. At the same time, this procedure allowed me to check what was happening constantly, which cognitive emotional processes acted; and finally to know students’ beliefs, values, feelings, interests, and ways of experiencing the various activities. The compilation “after” aimed at recording new interests, knowledge, and learning; at confirming perceptions of cognitive or affective changes; at highlighting favorite activities, the personal meaning, and importance attributed to them; and finally, at recalling the topics and the performed activities. For these aims, the notebooks contained questions regarding what they were doing, what they had done, what they believed they learned, what they considered more interesting, if their ideas changed in any way, etc. From the answers given by the students, I have extracted “key words” or “key concepts” and classified them into statistically significant categories (the percentages are rounded to unit-whole numbers). I have compared the “unclear/doubtful” categorization with another researcher. Students’ comments and drawings were also analyzed.
The collective discussions before, during, and after each practical experience and observation were analyzed. The more significant points of the conversations were extracted in order to reveal the development of the educational processes.
Final tests—only for the middle and high school students—requiring conclusive reflections about the performed experiences, new knowledge, change of ideas, etc. were given to be compiled in the museum or in class. The tests were different for the two school levels and consisted of open-ended questions connected with evolutionary issues. A “long-term test” was given only to the middle school students aged 13–14 (III class) to evaluate eventual further change or internalization of knowledge three months after the end of the Museum experience.
A semi-structured written interview was given to the teachers at the end of the school year.
Ethnographic observations of the students and teachers during their activities were performed; main behaviors and attitudes were observed and recorded constantly by another researcher.
Evaluation of the Free-Compiled Sheets About Darwin and Evolution
From the pre-experience sheets about Darwin and evolution compiled by the middle and high school students, nothing new emerged when comparing them with the concepts and stereotypes abundantly recorded in other research studies.
From the analysis of 75 extracted key words in the sheets of 70 middle school students (some students wrote more than one definition), it was found that 27% referred to evolution as “development,” 24% as “change,” 12% as “growth,” 9% as “transformation,” 7% as “life origin,” followed by passage, progress, modification, etc. (21%); only two students wrote “adaptation” (to the climatic change, or to the territory), but only one of these referred to it in a voluntary sense. In 12 cases (on 75; corresponding to 16%), evolution was emphasized as “positive” (improvement or progress); in three cases, negative and positive; in one case as indifferent. For these students, evolutionary changes involved “mental and physical characteristics” or “intelligence and knowledge” (clearly referred to man); secondarily, the ways of living, physical structures, ways of thinking, etc. Changes included man (29%), animal and plants (19%), followed by “nature” (6%), life (6%), “forms of life,” “living beings and species,” “body shapes,” but also Earth, time, science, and cultures, etc. (40%). The changes happened “over time” (75%), but also “continuously,” “throughout life,” “over the years,” “from the origin of creation,” etc. (25%). Key concept words like extinction, diversity, and natural selection were generally lacking. The middle school students clearly showed some confusion in defining the evolutionary processes due to the use of the term “evolution” in other disciplinary fields such as history (in which they use this term to mean human progress).
Among the high school students, no significant conceptual differences were noted except in the use of “more expert” language (for example the use of the terms adaptation and genetic change). Also for these students, the main key words were “change” (33%), “development” (4%), “transformation” (4%), “improvement and progress” (18%), other things (9%), but also life origin (12%), adaptation (about 12%; in four cases in a finalistic way) or generically “process” (8%). In 11 answers, it was specified that “over time,” “living being or species” (15 cases), but also “Earth, organs, human beings, environment etc.” evolve. In three cases, evolution was emphasized as positive change.
Charles Darwin was well known by the primary school students. All of them were able to “narrate” in some way about Darwin’s life, of which they had a romantic and enthusiastic idea. The main key concepts were “the voyage” and “the naturalistic studies.” The middle and high school students had similar ideas and ways to describe this figure. They added generally, “A great scientist who wrote fundamental books,” “who changed the previous idea about animals and life on Earth,” and “A great man with a high level of culture; he contributed greatly to scientific knowledge.” Some high school students quoted The Orgin of Species and related Darwin generically to “evolution” or evolutionary theory by adaptation (one student). Evolution in some cases was “discovered” by Darwin, after his “wonderful” voyage.
Evaluation of the Experiences Connected with the First Conceptual Framework (Living Beings and Natural Environments Change and Are Changed Repeatedly Over Time)
The simulation of digging up and the observation/study of the fossils stimulated many questions about differences of living beings and environments in the past and present, promoted the imagining of paleoenvironments, and suggested extinction and change in organisms. The big research question “What would a paleontologist know?” corresponded to the students’ questions that arose; for example (from the conversations and notebooks of primary and middle school students), “What animal was it? Why is it here? Where did it live? How was it shaped? When did it live? Were there others like it? What were the causes of its death or extinction? Did they all die (the individuals of the same species) or just this one? What was the environment it lived in? Why did it became extinct? Did it have any relatives?” etc. The variety of the observed fossils gave an example of the diversity in life forms and of the abundance and richness of this phenomenon. In all the notebooks after this experience, many extinct animals were mentioned, and extinction was described as a recurrent phenomenon (“Then many other animals, not just dinosaurs, became extinct,” for example, in primary school; “Many changes happened in the past and they continue now,” primary and middle school). Extinction was never mentioned in the pre-experience sheets. An interesting conceptual enrichment emerging from the discussions, notebooks, and final tests was the connection between extinction and the environment; all the students referred to environmental changes and lack of fitness as causes of extinction: Now environment was playing a dynamic and significant role, and it was not only a backdrop. In particular, from the notebooks of the middle school students, I have extracted 75 key concepts about this topic (some students gave more than one answer). Extinction was connected to the environment and its changes and consequently to lack of resources or fitness (64%), to scarce reproduction (15%), to evolutionary processes (5%), and to other causes (16%). Some answers were expressed in a naive way; for example: “Then animals became extinct because they were not fit for their environment…,” “It didn’t change when its environment was changing,” “They can’t survive if they don’t change…,” “If they couldn’t change then they became extinct,” and “They’re not always fit.” Some of these statements seem to me a valuable acquisition because the comprehension of relativity of fitness is difficult for young students. Also all high school students related extinction to evolutionary processes, environmental factors and fitness (nearly 100%; only one student related extinction to catastrophic events, such as meteorites).
The conversations and questions about extinction revealed that the “paleontological” experience was suitable to stimulate reflections on the “potential,” not “willingness” or “obligation” of evolutionary change and to appreciate the explanations provided by evolutionary theory. In the course of our/their conversations and in their notebooks, the students emphasized that the comprehension of extinction mechanisms was clearer and that they had found it difficult to associate extinction to evolution because they looked at evolution as improvement or positive change.
This experience was stimulating also for skills, imagination, creativity, and for reconnecting previous knowledge about paleoenvironments (one of the key didactical points: environments change). Descriptions, drawings, and collective posters revealed this, and many research studies about this topic were performed in classes or in the museum. At all school levels, splendid and exhaustive drawings and environmental models were produced.
From the affective and emotional point of view (attention, participation, interest, and motivation), all students (100% primary, middle, and high school) were able to describe the activities performed (during and after) exactly and accurately and to explain their aims. They wrote down their main interests about each topic and experience in the notebooks. For the primary school, the dig and the study of the fossils was the preferred activity. In their notebooks, I found many attempts to reconstruct paleoenvironments and fossil animals. Among the changes of ideas were: “environments change, they were different in the past” and “palaeontologists study the change of living beings in the past.”
From the middle school answers, I extracted 72 key concept words, representative of the students’ main interests. These can be summarized in three fundamental categories of interests: specimens (e.g., fossils, animals, etc.), 40%; activities (e.g., “to study fossils,” “to be a paleontologist,” “to prepare a poster with the fossil bones”) 36%; concepts (e.g. “the way of observing of the scientist, which is more objective”) 20%; but also simply “Darwin” (4%).
For the high school students, the main interest was connected with the fossil specimens and their observed characteristics (about 100%; only one student wrote as the main interest “adaptation”). The students showed a positive and conscious perception of their new knowledge acquisition or conceptual change. The primary school students generally declared, “I have no changed ideas but I have learned new things…” about Darwin, fossils, paleontological work, diversity, extinction, etc.
From the notebooks of the middle school students, it was found that 61% of the students changed some idea. Analyzing 43 explicit conceptual changes in detail (many students wrote simply “My ideas have changed …” or “More than changing I’ve learned new things” or “I acquired new ideas”), I noted three fundamental categories of changes: knowledge, interests/attitudes, and motivation and concepts. The changes in knowledge constituted 58% (e.g., “My idea about the concept of extinction have changed; at the beginning I had a vague idea about this topic; now I know that many species became extinct and could become extinct for environmental change, lack of food, scarce opportunities for reproduction, lack of fitness…”; “Curiosity and questions have come up that I didn’t have before”; “I’ve clarified some point I thought I knew, but now I know that it wasn’t exactly right”; “compared to before… I think that in the vegetable and animal worlds there are still many secrets to be revealed”). The changes in interests, attitudes, and motivations were 16% (e.g., “I thought that it was boring to study fossils, but after this experience I’ve understood that it is very interesting… mainly to discover the fossils’ ages…why they became extinct, but also to know where they are and how to find them”). The changes in concepts were 26% (e.g., “It is necessary to be interested, to investigate and study a matter more deeply in order to understand things better, and not to stop on the surface”; “I’ve understood the role of paleontologists and paleontology”; “I changed my idea about fossils”; “Yes… that extinction is a passage, a process of evolution”).
The high school students said they found confirmation of what they already knew. More than having changed ideas, they said they acquired new knowledge. Among the changes was “My ideas changed about how we can study Darwin’s history and research.”
As a result of ethnological observation of the students’ behaviors and attitudes, participation of the primary and middle schools can be defined as “enthusiastic.” It was surprising to see how much attention, care, and accuracy all the students showed as they worked. The middle school students, who had already been taught about evolution, appreciated the simulation of the paleontologist and confirmed their engagement in the activity. The high school students seemed initially more uncertain and embarrassed, but they were nevertheless engaged by this experience.
Evaluation of the Experiences Connected with the Second Conceptual Framework (The Environment and Living Beings Interact)
The main concept which emerged during and after the insect observations was connected with “functions that the various body parts have” and their relationships with the environment. After initial superficial observations of many insect specimens, students were invited to observe and describe “as an entomologist” also by means of stereomicroscopy and magnifying glasses and to draw. The question, “what would an entomologist know about this animal?” changed the perspective and knowledge context. The students’ questions (what it is… where it lives… how it is structured… what it eats… if it is male or female… what antennas, wings are for… something about its colour patterns… why the legs are different… long… with hairs, etc… if it is dangerous… why it has a long body, etc… why it looks like… a leaf… a stick…) helped to guide the students’ attention to scientifically interesting details. Many surprising discoveries and many questions came up from the observation of body structures. The trend to interpret structures and shapes in relation to the environment and adaptation emerged in all the students’ discussions and notebooks. Questions (or observations) were generally expressed in the style of “What is it for?” Right answers were found by means of the collective debates and the suggestions of the museum educators. The term “adaptation” was soon introduced by even the youngest students (association with previous knowledge or immediate learning?) to explain the relationship between shape, function, and environment or improvement of fitness, generally in the form of “Did it adapt?” Discussions with the older students were stimulated by the museum educators concerning linguistic and conceptual implications (“What is it for?” or “It adapted”) to highlight (mainly for the middle and high school) their tendency toward a finalistic interpretation and to introduce the casualty/contingency in evolution.
The impact of the insects was strong. Many students concentrated their attention mostly on these exciting animals. The study of this zoological group was shown in the notebooks to be among the most appreciated activity. From the middle school notebooks, I have extracted 70 key concept words to analyze the main interests. It showed basically a distribution within three categories: specimens and their biological characteristics (52%; e.g., “Insect body and wings,” “Coleoptera”), activities (40%; e.g., “to observe insects,” “to study how insects are made”), concepts (7%; e.g., “diversity of butterflies,” “Coleopteran adaptations like elytrae,” “mimicry of the leaf insect”), and “all” (1%).
Also the high school students were found to have been highly interested in insect biological characteristics and adaptations. Macro- and micro-observations, descriptions, and drawings were accurate and precise in all the students (100%); “I studied insects like an entomologist and I liked it”; this was a recurrent declaration made by primary school students that implied also a sort of awareness of the scientists’ particular ways of observing and interpreting.
The perceived and declared changes referred to knowledge. Among 40 specified changes by the middle school students, 73% referred to changes in knowledge and 10% in general concepts, but also to changes in attitude and behaviors, interest, and feelings toward the insects (17%). Many answers and comments were similar to these: “Before this experience they made me sick,” “I thought they were disgusting and now I find them interesting,” “Before I was afraid of insects,” and “I didn’t have the courage to look at them.” However, some comments also indicate interesting cognitive changes; for example, “I didn’t think insects were so complicated,” “I didn’t think that all the structures worked for something,” “My idea about how complicated the insect body is changed,” “I’ve learned some points of view on how you can see an insect,” “I’ve learned that all insects have some particular characteristics,” “I was struck by insect diversity, especially that of the butterflies,” “I was interested mainly in how coleopterans adapted by equipping themselves with armour,” “I’ve learned something about camouflage techniques,” and “I’ve learned that different forms and functions exist, not only for camouflage.”
A frequent declaration among the primary school students was, “None of my ideas changed because I didn’t know anything about these topics” but also “My ideas haven’t changed, but now I have a lot of questions.”
All the students declared that their knowledge had improved, revealing their conscious perception of new acquisition. By analyzing a total of 67 key concept words of the middle school students, it was found that the main acquisitions were concentrated on knowledge (54%, e.g., “the insects’ body characteristics and their functions… e.g., antennas, hairs, eyes, wing reticulum, colour patterns, mouth apparatus, nutrition”; “…mimicry techniques” etc.); after, on skills (25%, “I’ve learned some different points of view for seeing insects”); finally, on general evolutionary concepts (17%, e.g., “adaptation of insect body,” “advantages of insect mimicry,” “functions of insect hair,” “adaptations of the body shapes and functions,” “that every insect characteristic is important for its life”) and attitudes (4%; e.g., “I’ve learnt to observe, distinguish and analyze”).
The high school students were asked about this theme in the final test. Their trends were similar to those of the middle school students. Main interests were found to be insect mimicry and sensorial functions of antennas, hair, etc. All the students tried to interpret insect structures and functions in terms of adaptations.
Evaluation of the Experiences Connected with the Third and Fourth Conceptual Frameworks (Diversity Is an Emerging Property of Living Beings and It Exists at All Different Levels of Life Organization) (Intra-specific Diversity Exists; Genetic Diversity Is Responsible for Individual Diversity, the Genetic Code Is Universal and Explains the “Unity and Diversity” of Living Beings)
The word diversity never appeared before these practical experiences (with the exception of some students who cited in their notebooks the “diversity of insects” after the observation of this animal group). After the work on the third conceptual framework, the term diversity was used fluently, easily, and with awareness by the students in the course of the debates. From the analysis of the notebooks, it was found that all the students (100%) noted “We observed diversity.” Many students specified among the new learning “animal diversity and cell diversity.” In particular, from the middle school notebooks, I have extracted: “We talked about diversity within the same species” (13%)” and “…about cell diversity” (13%). Among the elder middle school students, 80% wrote about intra- and/or inter-specific diversity in connection with evolutionary processes; the remaining 20% connected diversity with other causes (e.g., sexual reproduction).
The microscopic observations had an unexpectedly strong impact. The scholastic (and media) habit of speaking about “the cell” probably prevent the idea of cell diversity as well as of hierarchical continuity of diversity at various life organizing levels. Through guided micro- and macroscopic observations, students discovered and verified not only similarities and the sharing of some fundamental characteristics in macro and micro living beings (for example, cell organization) but also differences in the same organism (for example, intra-cell diversity) and among different species (personal verification is more effective than book or teacher assertions!). The main questions that arose for the primary and middle school students were about the causes of similarity and diversity. These questions displaced their lay knowledge and stimulated reflections (or hypothesis in the youngest students) on the similarities that denote common origin and relatedness of all living beings (“Today we’ve learned why all living beings are composed of cells”; “They all have cells because they are all related even if they are different, because they come from the same organism” (sic! in Primary school); “They all come from some initial cells”). Many students wrote about initial cells or one cell from which all living beings came.
The other most frequent “appropriate question” at all the scholastic levels was about the origin of diversity (from what… why is it… what is the origin of this diversity? How did they all become different?), that allowed us to introduce or recall the evolutionary explanation of the origin of diversity. “Evolution and common origin” was the explanation for middle and high school: “Different shapes/appearances but similar basic characteristics explainable by evolution.” Evolution explains and interprets biodiversity. In the final test, the students attributed biological diversity to “evolution.” Some students (12%) associated the origin of diversity to sexual reproduction.
Some particular tautological explanations were recorded (that emphasize the impact of the discovery of cell diversity): “Diversity comes from cell diversity”; “Diversity exists because cells are different”; “Diversity is produced by the association of different cells”; “Organ diversity comes from cell diversity”… but also “Animal diversity comes from a cell that differentiates itself”; “Diversity is in all living beings.”
Another considerable outcome during the experiences was the evidence of the necessity for an agreement on classification criteria, considering the difficulty in forming reliable taxonomic groups (By color? Shape? Or other?). The “kinship” criterion emerged in the debates, which allowed us to reconnect (with the middle and high school students) the formal/conventional taxonomic categories with the evolutionary phylogenetic classification. It appeared clear that many students knew the Linnaean categories, but they did not understand evolutionary relationships among the taxonomic categories.
The attempt to create examples of small mammal biodiversity and to explain their criteria stimulated students to identify similarities or differences and to explain them in terms of adaptation and relationship to different environmental needs. In particular for the fourth framing concept, the students at all school levels participated in the classification/systematic exercises. Observation of intra-specific diversity was exciting for all of them (“I enjoyed classifying different species of shells and different or similar insects”). In the notebooks, all the students emphasized this concept (for example somebody wrote “I didn’t think that so many species of butterflies or mollusks existed”). It appeared clear that before, no one had a real concept of the quantity of intra-specific “variability” or even of the quantity of taxonomic biodiversity.
For the youngest students, this experience had the aim and effect of helping them to become aware of the variability of external characteristics. For the middle and high school students, the observation of chromosomes acted as a bridge which connected to genetic diversity. In both experiences about biodiversity (third and fourth conceptual framings), a good deal of difficulty in mastering the species concept came up. Moreover, only in one middle school class (elder students) the problem of reproductive isolation mechanisms was brought up, and some students wrote in their notebooks that they finally understood “that” and “why” males and females coming from different species do not mate. This is a real problem to consider because without a comprehension of reproductive isolation, it is difficult to understand evolution.
Among the high school students, I noted a disconnect in associating genetic mutations to diversity, notwithstanding the school teaching. Perhaps it is not so automatic: Theory is one thing, application and practice is quite another! After this experience, the high school students remembered mutations and linked them to new evolutionary views.
The answers given in the middle school notebooks were analyzed. Among 62 key concepts, the main interests specifically declared were: activities (40%; e.g., “to observe and talk about variability and diversity of different animal species”; “to observe and classify shells”), topics and concepts (35%; e.g., “…biodiversity and variability. I’ve found the answer to all my questions”; “When we talked about biodiversity; but overall to know how cells developed and how the different world species originated… and when we talked about biodiversity”; “diversity, despite living beings’ common origin…”); and finally, specimens (23%; e.g., “different types of shells”; “the many butterfly species”); but also “all” (2%).
Changes of ideas were declared by 80% of the middle school students. Among 37 specified changes (many students wrote simply “Yes, a lot of my ideas have changed”), 32% regarded intra- and inter-specific diversity. From the analysis of the 37 key concepts, it was found that 84% of the changes regarded knowledge (e.g., “My ideas have changed about the meaning of the term evolution, on biodiversity and natural patterns”; “…on the common origin of living beings, on the impossibility of the reproduction among different species, on intra-specific variability”; “I thought that cells and bacteria were not living because they do not move and I didn’t know that a yeast is a mushroom”; “I didn’t think that so many butterfly species exist”); 3% of the changes regarded interests and attitudes (e.g., “I’ve changed my idea about my interest in many things that before didn’t interest me”); 3% activities (e.g., “…on the observation of cells and animals”; “On the way to obtain wider knowledge”), and about 10% other things.
About 86% of the students declared they learned something new. From the analysis of 60 well identifiable key concepts, it was found that 75% of new learning regarded knowledge and concepts (e.g., “…that every difference, even if the least, is fundamental to classifying”; “…that all living beings are different from each other, but they have cells in common... they all have cells”; “I have learned to recognize vegetal and animal cells”; “…variability of species and cells...”; “adaptations in relationship to the environments”; “…how living being diversity originates”; “…how species evolved, their diversity and the causes of all this”; “…the common origin of living beings, evolution and species variability”). About 18% said they learned something in the activities (“I have learned to study cells with the microscope”) and 7% mentioned attitudes and motivations (“I’ve learned to observe differently, with a more scientific outlook”).
Participation in this experience was active and attentive, interest high and the production of drawings abundant and precise. All the students were able to describe the performed activities and to emphasize their didactical aims accurately in their notebooks.
The majority of the high school students, during the conversations with us and each other, declared that they had finally connected the concept of natural selection and adaptations to “something concrete and to true experiences.” For the high school classes, a more detailed evaluation of these experiences was performed in the final test.
Evaluation of the Final Tests
The final test for the middle school students was composed of open-ended questions that asked for explanations (1) for the presence of cells in all living beings (the common cellular structure of living beings) and their diversity notwithstanding common characteristics (unity and diversity of living beings), (2) about the origin of the different forms of life (taxonomic biodiversity), (3) about extinction and the origin of new species, and finally (4) an explanation and comment on the last sentence of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species (…whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved).
I extracted and categorized the main key concepts from the answers given by two middle school classes (one class of the youngest students and one of elder students). Among 34 key concepts about cell diversity and similarity, 62% connected similarity (unity) to common origin and diversity to evolutionary processes; all the other key concepts connected diversity to different needs and functions of the cells. Regarding the origin of diversity of living beings, among 32 key concepts, 75% referred to evolutionary processes and adaptation (only one voluntary) and the remaining, about 9%, to sexual reproduction that “produces diversity”; tautological explanations constituted 16%. It is interesting that in the preliminary conversation and investigation of pre-existing ideas, a considerable number of middle school students attributed the origin of different forms of life to God, while in the final test nobody cited divine creation. Moreover, only one student wrote about adaptation in the sense of obligation. For the extinction and origin of new species, on 37 key concepts, 76% referred to evolutionary processes and the remaining percentage to various causes or different cell structures. Regarding the Darwinian sentence, among 40 students who answered, only seven didn’t give an exhaustive answer and two students declared “I can’t explain”; all the others provided valid and ample comments and wrote acceptable correct explanations about the great amount of biodiversity and about continuity of evolutionary processes.
The final test for the high school students was composed of open-ended questions about the experience on paleontological issues and extinction (first structuring concept); about the evolutionary success of insects (these animals constitute the richer group of species among all living beings); about the scientific proof of the changes of living beings and their personal opinion about this issue; and finally, the test asked students about their eventual changes in ideas, their new knowledge and learning.
All the students commented on extinction as an evolutionary process connected with environmental changes, lack of fitness, etc.; only one student wrote “...because they weren’t able to adapt.” This is a valuable outcome because in the pre-experience sheets, extinction was never quoted in connection with evolution. All the students were able to explain the main insect body characteristics (wings, antennas, exoskeleton, etc.) in terms of adaptation and to connect these adaptations with the insect’s evolutionary success. Among the changes of ideas, I have found explicit references to evolutionary processes (15 of 47, mainly “My ideas about Lamarck and Darwin… about adaptation… natural selection… on how species adapt… have changed…”; “I’ve understood… my changed ideas about… diversity, evolution, extinction, natural selection… have changed and become clear”; “I have understood what natural selection and Inter-specific variability are”); but also other interesting declarations (e.g., “My ideas about my vision of man have changed.”; “I now think that the superiority of man over other animals is unfounded.”; “I’m excited by the point of view that man is similar to any other animal.”; “My ideas about animals that populate and populated the Earth have changed… I didn’t imagine that there were so many and that they were so different”).
Also regarding new knowledge (what do you think/believe you learned?), the more significant answers were “…new things about Darwin and evolution … I’ve learned evolution well…,” but also, for example: “I’ve learned to look at things differently and with more attention”; “…new ways of thinking”; “I’ve learnt to reflect in order to find a solution.” Regarding the final question about the changes of living beings, all the students furnished evolutionary explanations, supported by paleontological evidence. In all the final tests, diversity was connected to different life needs and adaptation to different life environments.
The long-term test, compiled only by the elder middle school students, was composed of six open-ended questions about the topics seen in the museum and the activities performed there. Afterwards, the students were required to write five key words about their experiences at the museum, to write what they associated the name of Charles Darwin with, why paleontology supported evolution and helped scientists to study evolutionary processes, and finally to discuss the case of the Darwin finches. The answers were analyzed and key words or key concepts were extrapolated and categorized. From the answers about topics and arguments seen in the museum, from 56 key words selected, 62% were connected with evolution (variability, diversity, relation between shape and function, natural selection, etc.), 34% with the laboratorial activities and 4% with other topics. Among the key concepts regarding the activities, from 66 key concepts 61% were connected with the laboratory activities and observation of specimens, described thoroughly and coherently; 30% regarded particular concepts or topics (we studied evolution… we explained extinction…animal diversity… animal functions…); 3% “the tour of the museum”; 5% other activities; and 2% simply wrote “we enjoyed ourselves.” Regarding the key words about the experiences performed in the Museum, among 79 key words selected from the student answers, 24% were connected with evolution, 15% with the paleontological experience (first framing concept), 15% with Insects and the second framing concept, 6% with animals, 5% with biodiversity, 5% with cells, 12% consisted of adjectives (beautiful, enjoying, interesting, etc.), 6% with other elements connected with laboratorial experiences, and 12% with other things. The total key words connected with laboratorial experiences was 48%.
The key words associated with Charles Darwin were very different from the preliminary ones: Among 40 selected key words, 75% were connected with evolutionary processes, 13% referred to Darwin as a “scientist,” there were 5% other associations, and only 7% were associated with “voyage.” Regarding the paleontological issues, from 18 clearly expressed answers, 72% were acceptable and exhaustive, and only five (28%) answers were insufficiently developed. Also for the comments about Darwin’s finches, among 18 well expressed and well analyzable answers, 83% were valid and abundantly developed.
To verify long-term or some unexpected outcome of the project from another point of view, teachers who took part in this experience were interviewed at the end of the school year (about two months after the respective last visit to the museum). All the teachers judged the experiences and the theoretical frameworks to be suitable. All verified interest and application in their students and developed other research and didactic products. All declared that students approached evolution in class easily and willingly: They had summarized the fundamentals of evolutionary theory simply. In their opinion, students particularly appreciated the museum setting with exhibits and biological specimens, the laboratory and creative activities, and the interactive and informal approach. In their semi-structured guided interviews, the teachers stated that the museum experience made the learning of evolutionary theory in classes easier. In particular, the high school teacher wrote in her interview that the students had had a lot of difficulties in understanding the adaptive convergence during her explanation in class, despite a great quantity of examples given by her. These students found it hard to understand that in the same environment adaptations can be convergent because the selective pressures and life needs are similar. Likewise, these students had hardly mastered adaptation issues. In addition, the teacher wrote that she could not say when or at what point understanding clicked, but after the museum experience, her students looked at animals and plants differently, and they had not been satisfied to recognize them or classify them but tried to grasp significant similarities or differences and to attribute an adaptive explanation and interpretation to them. The same teacher did not note significant differences in the students’ scientific language. It is probably necessary to have greater regularity and reinforcement in the use of specific language and definitions.
Seemingly, one of the middle school teachers noted conceptual change, particularly in the understanding of biodiversity. In one of her two classes, the teacher verified that her students founded their evolutionary idea on the fossils and paleontological issues after the museum experience: The paleontological experience at the museum acted as a structuring concept for understanding extinction and change of species.
No evaluation about learning or changing ideas was possible with the adult or family visitors who attended the weekend laboratories (only one visit, about three to four hours). However, the educational experiences in a museum can be evaluated by other elements of cultural enrichment (interest and enjoyment) and by attitude and behaviors (engagement and participation). During the experiences, visitor participation was always involving, active and attentive, and the interest high; statements and manifestations of interest and satisfaction were explicit.