, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 62-67

An Alternative Approach: Teaching Evolution in a Natural History Museum Through the Topic of Vector-Borne Disease

Abstract

Museums play a vitally important role in supporting both informal and formal education and are important venues for fostering public understanding of evolution. The Yale Peabody Museum has implemented significant education programs on evolution for many decades, mostly focused on the museum’s extensive collections that represent the past and present tree of life. Twelve years ago, the Peabody began a series of new programs that explored biodiversity and evolution as it relates to human health. Modern evolutionary theory contributes significantly to our understanding of health and disease, and medical topics provide many excellent and relevant examples to explore evolutionary concepts. The Peabody developed a program on vector-borne diseases, specifically Lyme disease and West Nile virus, which have become endemic in the United States. Both of these diseases have complex transmission cycles involving an intricate interplay among the pathogen, host, and vector, each of which is subject to differing evolutionary pressures. Using these stories, the museum explored evolutionary concepts of adaptation (e.g., the evolution of blood feeding), coevolution (e.g., the “arms race” between host and vector), and variation and selection (e.g., antibiotic resistance) among others. The project included a temporary exhibition and the development of curriculum materials for middle and high school teachers and students. The popularity of the exhibit and some formal evaluation of student participants suggested that this educational approach has significant potential to engage wide audiences in evolutionary issues. In addition it demonstrated how natural history museums can incorporate evolution into a broad array of programs.