At the beginning of each semester, I usually have at least one undergraduate student approach me at the end of the first class to say, “I’m not good at science, but I need to take this class to graduate.” Historically, in their academic career this may be true; however, in reality their science classes might have been the problem. And in many cases, these students end up performing very well in my class.

Too often, science classrooms—post-secondary and earlier—focus all too much on memorization of “facts” and terminology without emphasizing the process and methods used to learn and truly understand them. Certainly, knowledge of facts is necessary for the understanding of the material, but too many classrooms stop short and seem to test on an aptitude for memorization opposed to a genuine conceptual understanding. The scientific method is the hallmark of scientific research and can be applied to many fields, occupations, and even everyday life, and it and its application should be at the forefront of the science education experience, which can arguably be achieved through project-based active learning.

Active learning in STEM involves problem-solving, which can lead to a deeper understanding of science compared to other teaching methods. In fact, a metanalysis investigating effectiveness of active learning in STEM reports that active learning increases student performance and better preparation for life and career.

Additionally, simply requiring the retention of facts perpetuates the idea that science is constant and unchanging, but experts in the field know with all too much confidence that scientific research is anything but unchanging. Improvements in technology and methodology, as well as real-time changes to the systems of study and new discoveries, lead to novel data that can be interpreted differently. For example, advances in genetics have enabled us to understand more about our closest evolutionary relatives, both living and extinct. In 1997, a research team led by Svante Pääbo published a study investigating mitochondrial DNA that argued that modern humans did not mate with Neanderthals. Thirteen years later, another study led by the same scientist investigated nuclear DNA and found that modern humans did in fact mate with Neanderthals and that many modern humans have ~1–4% Neanderthal DNA. Advances in technology allowed Svante Pääbo and colleagues to discover this and change how we think about our evolutionary history—specifically, migration patterns, behavior, and interactions with closely related species.

Neglecting to emphasize the evolving nature of science and how to interpret data can result in increased spread of misinformation about conservation, climate change, and public health.

In spite of the benefits associated with active learning, it is a tough sell for a lot of educators and students—especially at the post-secondary level. Active learning requires educators to devote more time to preparation and student feedback than traditional lecturing, and more time and critical thinking for students. But it is essential if students are to truly understand the evolving nature of science.

Even some minor additions and adjustments to curriculum can make it more active. Here, I outline a few suggestions for how, while incorporating topics related to primate evolution and conservation.

  1. Emphasize the steps of the scientific method with project-based activities. On the NEPC website is an activity that instructs students to construct their own evolutionary family tree by using the scientific method with clear project-based steps.
  2. Discuss ideas and concepts during class that are well studied but still debated. For example, in primates a large brain, compared to other animals, is a defining characteristic. However, the proposed evolutionary drivers of this phenomenon are numerous and not agreed upon. The most notable of hypotheses include the social brain hypothesis and the ecological brain hypothesis. Through a writing assignment, presentation, or discussion, encourage students to evaluate the research and how we can better test these hypotheses.
  3. Use data and figures (graphs) in lessons and encourage students to interpret them. In most lectures I emphasize examples of how “facts” are shown by data in figures. For example, many primate species have IUCN status of vulnerable, endangered, or critical and it can be shown on this figure (see below text) from Science Advances.
  4. Emphasize how discoveries and emerging technologies related to conservation are ever-changing. For example, genetic analyses were performed on a population of orangutans in Sumatra, which showed that one Sumatran population was actually more genetically similar to Bornean orangutans than the other Sumatran populations. Now, there are three species of orangutans instead of two, which means that some of them are more endangered than previously thought. New data and technologies allowed for this knowledge and appropriate policy changes. In cases where the primary literature is not approachable to students, articles from media sources like the New York Times, Scientific American, and National Geographic are great, and in most cases, better resources.
  5. Lastly, incorporate options to use technologies relevant to today’s students (i.e., social media) into projects. For example, have students select a photo of a primate from Unsplash (a free collection of photos by photographers from around the world), identify the primate, research the primate, write a concise but educational and comprehensive synopsis about the species (i.e., behavior, diet, location, conservation status, social system, taxonomic classification, etc.), and post on Instagram.

By incorporating miniature projects into a curriculum, educators enable students to develop skills and discover interests in ways that are not possible with memorization and regurgitation on traditional examinations. These projects give students things to discuss and show during interviews for school and jobs, and give unique opportunities for students to retain information through practice.

how project-based learning shows science in action




Abigail Colby is currently a PhD student in biological anthropology at the University of Calgary. She is also a science communicator and works for TED as a science content intern. 

From 2018-2021, she taught biological anthropology courses at Brooklyn College and Hunter College in NYC. Abigail has a master’s degree in anthropology from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Dickinson College. 

In her free time Abigail enjoys yoga, reading, and listening to educational podcasts.

Please Abby’s view her lesson for New England Primate Conservancy:

Your Evolutionary Family Tree