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- Fantastic animals as an experimental model to teach animal adaptation

It is impossible that any abstraction can form a subject of natural science, seeing that everything that Nature makes is means to an end.

"On the Parts of Animals" Aristotle

Science curricula and teachers should emphasize evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance as a unifying concept in science and its overall explanatory power. It provides students with powerful ideas to help them understand the natural world [1]. Scientific interpretations of natural events need interpretation and elaboration efforts that are rarely spontaneous; to lead students to their knowledge, comprehension and conceptualization is a demanding and exciting task for a teacher [2]. Evolutionary processes and, in general, scientific explanations of the world are often in contrast with the immediate and simple explanations that our brain gives of reality (e.g. the sun seems to turn around the earth, the earth seems to be flat), and are influenced by what Francis Bacon called "idola" (false notions or tendencies which distort the truth [3]). Due to the slowness of evolutionary processes, species seem immutable and fixed in time. Even though transformation and evolution are accepted as theoretical concepts, people often have a finalistic view of the evolutionary processes. This leads to the idea that: (a) organisms are perfectly adapted to their environment, (b) their characteristics cannot be other than they are, and (c) everything is made for the best purpose. These misconceptions are well represented by Voltaire through the words of Dr. Pangloss: "...the nose was created for the purpose of wearing spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them" [4]. The Panglossian paradigm is a term coined by Gould and Lewontin [5] to refer to the notion that everything has specifically adapted to suit specific purposes.

Adaptation is a crucial concept of the evolutionary theory. Ridley in his recent book on evolution reports that "It is one of the main aims of modern evolutionary biology to explain the forms of adaptation that we find in the living world. Adaptation refers to those properties of living things that enable them to survive and reproduce in nature" [6]. For a better understanding of evolution, the concept of adaptation represents a first step to understand the results of natural selection.

We began our planning of this experimental project on the assumption that the "forms" of most characters (morphological, ultrastructural, molecular) of living beings are related to their functions, which in their turn are linked to the environments inhabited by organisms. While this is not always true, students need to understand that survival and fitness are dependent on structures and their functions. In this way they will come to understand the concept of natural selection [7].

The classic pedagogical approach, mainly based on frontal lessons supported by book reading, unlikely produces a constructivist view of knowing in students, but empirical experiences cannot always be used to understand particular concepts such as evolutionary theory. With this in mind, we developed an experimental project of alternative didactics to better understand previous disciplinary information (life science) and to improve knowledge of organism adaptation with an evolutionary perspective. We used inductive methods to direct student understanding about the concept of adaptation. The students were involved and stimulated in learning processes by creative activities, by laboratory work, by visits at different institutions, and by cooperative learning teaching structures. This experience was significant because it involved people (university professors, school teacher and their students) and institutions (university, school and museum) at different levels of teaching research.

Creative activities and fantastic animals were used, not only as a way to teach, but (also) as a way to capture students' interest and to keep it active during the project. To set adaptation in a historic frame, we also considered fossil records as evidence of past life and of evolution.

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