BU researchers find a happy ending: Storybook shows young children can understand difficult scientific concept of natural selection

A team of researchers at Boston University demonstrated the educational power of storybooks by writing one about natural selection, a dense scientific topic. After reading the picture book, the children displayed significant comprehension of the material. PHOTO BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

A team of researchers at Boston University demonstrated the educational power of storybooks by writing one about natural selection, a dense scientific topic. After reading the picture book, the children displayed significant comprehension of the material.
PHOTO BY MAYA DEVEREAUX/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Once upon a time. It is an exposition as classic as storybooks themselves. From fairytale collections to choose-your-own-adventure series, storybooks have been used for decades as means of conveying morals to young children: Be kind. Eat your vegetables. It is OK to be scared. Don’t take too much from a tree. Adaptation through natural selection occurs based on long-term survival over masses of a population.

One might assume that this final lesson on natural selection is slightly too advanced for children to understand, but several psychiatric researchers at Boston University’s Child Cognition Lab have shown this may not be the case, according to a March 11 press release.

The researchers discovered that children are indeed capable of grasping complex scientific concepts, and they proved this by using an accessible means of communication: a picture book. They presented children with a 10-page picture book that the researchers themselves wrote.

The “complex scientific concept” used adaptation by natural selection.

“Here at the CCL, we are interested in how children conceptualize the natural and human worlds,” said Kristin Lees, the manager of the lab in which the study was conducted. “We are currently exploring topics such as how children learn about biological processes.”

Dr. Deborah Kelemen, director of BU’s CCLs and head author of the research, explained that researchers chose the picture book’s topic based on its historical difficulty.

“Natural selection is pretty complex and multi-faceted, so most students aren›t comprehensively taught adaptation by natural selection until early adolescence, if then,” she said. “However, there have been a slew of education studies over the past 30 years indicating that, even after instruction, these and older students still don’t tend to understand it.”

Much of this continued misunderstanding over adaptation is derived out of a common misconception concerning the amount of time it takes for traits to fully evolve in a population, she said.

“The main misconception that I see is this confusion of adaptation that somehow life can simply work to adapt itself in its own life cycle,” said Dr. Douglas Zook, a professor of science education and global ecology at BU. “In fact, natural selection is really what’s left over. We’re all here now — this tree, you, me and anything else that’s alive — because we fit in right now, and everything else doesn’t.”

This inaccurate conception of evolution as short-term is known as a teleological explanation. They are attempts to derive understanding from purpose, Zook said.

“We can change our own life, but just because we change something doesn’t mean it will evolve and go in some direction,” he said. “That’s the main concept that I think people need to be more aware of.”

In an effort to combat this inaccuracy, Kelemen and her team specifically designed their book to cater a more gradual and clear scenario. They did so by developing a fictional species called “pilosas” upon which the plot of the story was based.

Researchers created an imaginary species as the main characters of the story so that children would not read the book with any preconceived notions.

The pilosas begin the story as an ancestral species with trunks of varying shapes and sizes. Adaptation through natural selection effects takes effect as the population has only narrow trunks at the end of book.

“Page-by-page, the story very carefully and tightly unfolds an explanation of how —after terrible climate change — the pilosas’ food [bugs] got driven underground into tunnels,” Kelemen said. “Gradually, all the pilosas with wide trunks die because they can’t get to the food, but the ones with skinny trunks can reach it and stay healthy enough to have babies and so pass on their traits to their offspring.”

However, even a picture book is nothing without kids to read to. In a first experiment, the researchers gathered 61 children aged five to eight.

This illustration from the picture book depicts the differing appearances of ancestral and present-day “wilkies.” The fictional species evolved to be taller over time in order to reach the fruit, and they are just one of several animals developed by Kelemen and her team for the storybook. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBORAH KELEMEN

This illustration from the picture book depicts the differing appearances of ancestral and present-day “wilkies.” The fictional species evolved to be taller over time in order to reach the fruit, and they are just one of several animals developed by Kelemen and her team for the storybook.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBORAH KELEMEN

The children were given pretests and then researchers read them the story. Afterward, the children were evaluated on both their comprehension of the story and their ability to generalize the same idea to a novel species. Evaluations were given on the same day and then three months later to test for retention.

The evaluations were listed on a scale from zero to four, according to the formal report. A grade of zero indicated a child had “no isolated facts” about natural selection, and a grade of four indicated a child had “natural selection understanding in multiple generations.”

The proportion of five to six-year-olds at level zero fell from 82 percent before reading the story to a slim 11 percent after reading the story. Fifty-four percent of this age group also showed an accurate integration of facts into a population-based explanation for why the pilosas’ trunks narrowed over time.

Evidently, the older group approached the pretest with more basic knowledge of evolutionary processes, but researchers still observed a significant growth in understanding. The percentage of seven- to eight-year-olds who showed sufficient knowledge of facts concerning the adaptation process (level one or above on the evaluation scale) went from 57 percent to 90 percent.

In this biological test of scientific literacy, the kids passed, and their successful learning from this medium stands as a firm supporter of a good story’s power to educate, the researchers concluded.

“I believe these findings have broad implications, both for the science content taught in early grades, and for the method of instruction,” said Dr. Kathleen Corriveau, a professor of human development in SED. “These findings suggest the importance of books as an instructional tool.”

Early exposure to advanced academic material is certainly not foreign to the BU community. Michael Dennehy is the director of BU’s Upward Bound math/science program, which assists high school students from Boston and Chelsea in preparation for collegiate studies.

“Part of their involvement and our purpose is to expose them to a wide array of STEM fields that they could potentially study in college,” he said.

Students in the program participate in afterschool tutoring and even day-long science labs in BU facilities.

“I think where there are some parallels, within our reach, is we really try to expose students to key concepts of science at an earlier age,” he said. “I would agree with the findings of the study in that I do think that, as educators, we do need to think about exposing students to key concepts in science at an earlier age.”

However, allowing students of all ages to harness advanced material early on in life is just the first step. Zook said experiential learning is a key factor alongside more traditional education.

“I think children need to be outdoors and in nature to actually have a feeling for these kinds of topics and actually see how organisms change over time in front of their eyes,” he said.

Despite the implications on educational techniques, the simplest interpretation of the results may just be the most important one: children are smart.

“People shouldn’t underestimate the smarts of young children,” Kelemen said. “Human beings are naturally motivated to learn and explain things. Educational approaches can capitalize on that drive so that kids don’t just learn a bunch of facts but also how the facts fit together to make an explanation.”

She said the study indicates that placing more effort into science education at an early age could reap massive societal benefits.
“Children learned a lot from one pretty basic storybook intervention, so imagine what a curriculum spread over several years might do for scientific literacy long term,” she said. “The possibilities are very exciting.”

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