Human evolution—one of the most discussed scientific topics and one of the hardest for teachers to tackle—will be the focus of the 2011 Holiday Lectures on Science from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Three top scientists will discuss how scientists are approaching the subject of human evolution, calling on data and discoveries made by researchers worldwide, with Washington, D.C.-area high school students on October 6 and 7, 2011, at HHMI’s headquarters in Chevy Chase, MD.
The lectures, Bones, Stones, and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans, will feature some of the nation’s top scientists studying human evolution:
- Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, will discuss his search for early hominid skeletons, including the discovery of the 4.4 million-year-old human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus—Science magazine’s "Breakthrough of the Year" in 2009—and his field work in Africa.
- John Shea, an archaeologist and anthropologist at Stony Brook University, will share his research into ancient stone tools and what they can tell us about the evolution of human behavior.
- Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, will explain what DNA can tell us about human genetic diversity, our origins in Africa, and the pace of human evolution.
“The only way to figure out what happened is by going to the real data,” White says. “And when we do that as scientists, the one thing that keeps coming back, no matter how many times we’ve tested it and gone back to the fossil record or the genetics lab or something else: we evolved.”
The annual Holiday Lectures on Science bring together top scientists and students from public and private high schools in the Washington area, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland; Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun counties and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church in Virginia; and the District of Columbia. Still more students watch through a live webcast, including sites from Rhode Island to Oklahoma to Washington State.
The lectures are taped live and later redistributed in a variety of formats as educational resources that are used by students and teachers nationally and internationally. Over 100,000 copies of the DVDs will be distributed, and even more will watch it on the Holiday Lectures website, which gets over two million visits a year. HHMI’s previous DVD on evolution is by far the most popular among educators. A group of teachers from across the country will also be attending the lectures and talking to the scientists to create activities and curriculum to accompany the DVDs.
Bones, Stones and Genes aims to give students and teachers an overview of the evidence for human evolution, 150 years after Darwin first proposed that humans evolved from apes. The evidence includes a growing fossil record from Africa, ancient artifacts like stone tools, and molecular genetics data from populations around the world. “The pattern of variation that we see in modern populations reflects the evolutionary history of our species,” Tishkoff says. “By looking at the pattern of variation in modern populations, we can try to infer something about the past.”
“The only way to figure out what happened is by going to the real data. And when we do that as scientists, the one thing that keeps coming back, no matter how many times we’ve tested it and gone back to the fossil record or the genetics lab or something else: we evolved.”
This year, students will make their own stone tools by striking rocks together, called flintknapping, as part of a hands-on activity after the first day of lectures. “As an archeologist, the really satisfying thing about it is I get to help young people get excited about these subjects, open their eyes to how knowledge about the natural world can lead them to a career in science or lead them to a greater appreciation of the humanities,” Shea says. Students will also participate in discussions about the genetics of human evolution, doing field work in Africa, and public perceptions of human evolution.
White is eager to help a new generation of students recognize the importance of human evolution research. “Human evolutionary studies really is an integrative science, and it is a science that needs scientists from all different walks of life bringing together their joint expertise,” he says. “I hope that students exposed to this incredible adventure, this intellectual adventure of learning how we became human, I hope some of them will become interested, even passionate about this, and go on and contribute themselves.”
More information about the lectures can be found at http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/