The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science provides middle school and elementary teachers the tools they need to effectively teach evolution and answer its critics based on new Next Generation Science Standards.
Middle school science teachers are our educational system’s jacks-of-all-trades.
I majored in biology in college, and the science courses I took to earn my master’s degree in science education were all in the biological sciences. I know biology. (Okay, I also minored in psychology and French.) I have now been teaching middle school science for almost 30 years, and you will not be surprised to know that I’ve needed to know about much more than just biology. Through most of my career, I’ve taught many science concepts that were beyond my immediate area of expertise, teaching everything from meteorology to the laws of motion. I have often stayed a chapter ahead of my students as I learned the difference between an occluded front and a stationary front.
My experiences are not unique. It is virtually impossible to become an expert in all of our content areas, and over the years, it has repeatedly dawned on me that my greatest resource for learning new material and developing effective lesson plans has been my fellow middle school science teachers. We are a talented bunch, and two particularly special teachers come to mind for me as perfect examples.
There’s Mrs. Patricia Soto, a shining star of a science teacher in my school district, and with whom I team-taught over sixty sixth-graders during my third and fourth years. It was a magical time for me, as Mrs. Soto could captivate a room full of eleven-year-olds with any subject matter, with her focus on hands-on learning and guided science inquiry. To this day, I find myself revisiting her ideas and strategies countless times every school year.
There’s Mary Martinez, my team-teaching classroom partner years later. A truly exceptional educator, Mary loved geology and had an extensive rock and mineral collection at her disposal. I learned the wonders of asterism and chatoyancy right alongside the children.
Besides recognizing the invaluable resources my colleagues provide, I came to realize that we teach best what we know and love best. Our knowledge of a subject leads to our own enthusiasm for it and a deepening of our knowledge. This confidence and enthusiasm translates directly into the classroom, making a significant difference in our students’ learning process. Passion is contagious.
I have always sought to pay forward the kindness and generosity shown me by the countless teachers who have opened their file cabinets and offered me lesson plans and lab activities. Science understanding is constantly expanding, and it is very difficult for science teachers to stay current with all the latest research across the vast field of the subject areas they teach.
How TIES Began
In November of 2012, I had the opportunity to share my experiences with Prof. Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned evolutionary biologist and author of the landmark book The Selfish Gene, among many others. Prof. Dawkins intuitively understood the importance of giving the teachers of this impressionable age group the proper tools to teach evolution. So perhaps the most famous and influential scientist on the planet, offered to come to my middle school on December 11, 2014, to speak with middle school teachers from all over Miami-Dade County about the Florida Sunshine State Standards on Evolution and Natural Selection. The two-hour interview addressed the fundamentals of evolutionary science.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the event alerted us to the need to familiarize interested middle school science teachers with the most up-to-date concepts of natural selection, common ancestry, and diversity for them to confidently cover the topics in their classrooms and fulfill their curricular requirements.
This was how it started. That revelation was the cornerstone of the creation of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, now an arm of the Center for Inquiry.
The purpose of TIES is to give middle school science teachers all the content knowledge and teaching tools they need to effectively cover their state’s evolution standards. TIES materials, available for free on the TIES website, include presentation slides, hands-on activities, a guided reading, an exam review, and the corresponding exam. Extremely valuable online resources and recommended readings are also included.
The first TIES workshop took place thanks to a collaboration with the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Coconut Grove, Florida. On April 3, 2015, thirty middle school science teachers participated in a daylong workshop that included several guest speakers from the staff of museum scientists. The museum scientists shared research on phylogeny, fossilized amber, the fossil preparation of the 475-million year old fish Xiphactinus, and provided a sneak peek of future museum exhibits. A representative of explorelearning.com, Mario Junco, shared an online lab on Natural Selection, and as a most special treat, the participants were able to play with a pet silver fox—the result of fifty years of artificial selection experiments in Siberia.
We have collaborated with several universities and museums, as well as the professional development offices of school districts nationwide to provide professional growth experiences to teachers from coast to coast. Teachers interested in using our free classroom resources or learning more about how to join our TIES Teacher Corps can find more information at our webpage,
Within every experienced classroom teacher lays a wealth of pedagogical and content knowledge just waiting to be tapped. We are our own best resources. Many of us lifelong teachers are especially thankful to the Patricia Sotos and Mary Martinezes of the world, who make our early years in the classroom a lesson worth cherishing for a lifetime.
Bertha Vazquez, TIES Director
Bertha Vazquez has been teaching middle school science in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for 24 years. She has BA in Biology from the University of Miami and a Master’s in Science Education from Florida International University. A seasoned traveler who has visited all seven continents, she enjoys introducing the world of nature and science to young, eager minds. An educator with National Board Certification, she is the recipient of several national and local honors, including the 2014 Samsung’s $150,000 Solve For Tomorrow Contest and The Charles C. Bartlett National Excellence in Environmental Award in 2009. She has been the Miami-Dade Science Teacher of the Year three times, in 1997, 2008, and 2017. She is the 2017 recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Education Award and is also one of Florida’s 2017 finalists for the most prestigious science award in the country, The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Kenny Coogan, TIES Associate
Kenny Coogan earned a BS in Animal Behavior at the University of Buffalo, NY. He then worked in the education departments of zoological facilities for 10 years before becoming a science teacher. He was awarded the Beginning Science Teacher of the Year Award for the state of Florida through the Florida Association of Science Teachers. He has averaged over $10,000 worth of donations for his classroom per year. In his spare time, he is a regular columnist for for print magazines such as Backyard Poultry. Kenny shares his one acre permaculture homestead with cats, chickens, ducks, and a 30-year old Moluccan cockatoo named Buddy. His goal is to live off of the land. At TIES, he helps with social media, workshop preparation, and venue searches.
A Special Thank You!
TIES would like to recognize our wonderful donor, Dr. Lawrence Bonchek, without whom our full-day workshops would not be possible. Teachers in Georgia, Montana, and Utah received a day of excellent professional development thanks to Dr. Bonchek. He is also the reason our TIES presenters receive stipends for their participation and our webpage will soon be NGSS-aligned. Thanks, Dr. Larry!!