Our lab is engaged in outreach in several areas including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, and conservation of endangered sticklebacks. We are also committed to supporting the educational and professional goals of women in the sciences, as well as informal science education.


Public understanding of evolution is of increasing importance because of the fundamental role evolution plays in many environmental and health problems that face our society. For example, evolutionary principles can inform public policy decisions in medicine, agriculture, conservation, and global warming. It also informs basic and applied research in these areas. Moreover, making sense of the human genome is impossible without evolutionary biology. Scientists in many fields are realizing the importance of evolution to their work. Despite its fundamental importance, evolution is widely misconstrued and mistrusted by the public. This hampers scientific progress and undermines public policy efforts. Our lab is engaged in improving public understanding of evolution through public outreach and teacher training. Our efforts have taken many forms. Below is a selection of our activities.

Darwin Day Darwin Day Darwin Day Darwin Day

                                                                             Highlighting Evolution

Evolution of Complex Adaptations: The Eyes Have It!

As part of a GK-12 teacher workshop, Jenny Boughman developed eye evolution as an example of how complex adaptations evolve one step at a time. Eyes are often used to argue that evolution can't explain complex adaptations because they won't work if they're incomplete. People get stuck on the problem of: How can you put an adaptation together one bit at a time? This is the idea of irreducible complexity. But actually, eyes are a stunningly good example of the power of evolution by selection to generate complexity. Eyes have evolved multiple times from simple to complex, and we understand the genetic building blocks of eye evolution. We have a good answer to the question of what good is an eye without all its parts. If it's missing a lens - just as good as a pinhole eye!

By providing public school teachers with examples and information on evolution, we hope to help them to better teach the topic.

Developing instructional materials for teachers

As part of a GK-12 program is funded by NSF Alycia Lackey gives science talks to nonspecialists: K-12 teachers and students, science education researchers, and outreach specialists in rural areas of southwestern Michigan. She also designs science lessons for elementary classrooms on organisms and their habitats and other topics. On a recent field trip to Canada to collect stickleback fish, she kept a fish tales blog to engage multiple elementary classrooms with her research. She likes to use her own research as a jumping off point to help students design their own research questions and experiments.

To improve teacher understanding of evolution and provide instructional materials, grad student Genny Kozak worked with fellow graduate students in a course taught by David Baum (UW Botany) and Jim Stewart (UW Curriculum & Instruction) on the Effective Teaching of Evolution. They developed activities to explain the rapid evolution of threespine sticklebacks in nature. They focused on teaching two principles. First, that fitness is determined by environmental conditions. Second, that different selective pressures arising from different environments have led to phenotypic differences between populations.

Darwin Day

MSU celebrates the birth of Charles Darwin. Our objective for Darwin Day activities is to increase public understanding of evolution. Our lab has been involved in Darwin Day activities at MSU and as a part of the UW-Madison evolution community since 2005.

2007-2009; 2012: Interactive exhibit - Why are females choosy? Why are males showy?

This interactive exhibit was geared at children of all ages, and adults. It used games and simulations to teach concepts of sexual selection (sexual dimorphism, differential parental investment, mate choice, elaboration and evolutionary change of male mating traits under the action of female choice and predation).

2007: Evolution Matters

Evolution Matters

Public presentation - Irreducible complexity and the evolution of the vertebrate eye.

This talk by Elliott Sober & Jenny Boughman laid out the counter arguments to the idea that complex organs cannot have evolved but must have been created by an intelligent designer. By way of example, we showed how evolution elegantly explains the evolution of the vertebrate eye. We emphasized three principles: 1) how complex organs do not arise all at once, but are built by modifying existing structures, 2) that each stage is advantageous to its bearers, and 3) evidence for broad sharing of the building blocks (genes) that produce eyes.

2007: Radio interview - University of the Air.

Bret Payseur (UW Genetics) and Jenny Boughman were interviewed on evolution and religion for this Public Radio show which was broadcast throughout the state of Wisconsin.

2006: Updating the Evidence

Panel discussion - A panel of UW faculty took questions from the audience on any aspect of evolution, including evolution and religion. Panel members:

Jenny Boughman - evolutionary & behavioral ecology
            Jim Crow - population genetics & molecular evolution
            Jeff Hardin - developmental biology
             Ron Numbers - history of science & religion

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Animal Behavior

Teaching minority students & teachers in the PEOPLE program

The Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) is a summer science inquiry course for minority and underserved high school students and their teachers, run by the UW Center for Biology Education (CBE). RA Jen Hutchens taught animal behavior in this program. She developed lectures and lab activities to illustrate the scientific method, and to introduce students to topics in animal behavior like mimicry, communication, sociality, and sexual selection.

Sexual Dimorphism and Communication

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Informal Science Education

Alycia Lackey took a course on Informal Science Education in Spring 2008 and, with a team of graduate students in different science departments on campus, created an interactive museum exhibit aimed to teach the public (young children through adults) about the science of breakfast. Participants learned the chemical and physical changes that occur in the molecules of an egg as it cooks, and they learned how to “cook” and egg using ethanol.

Informal Science
Informal Science: The Science of Breakfast

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Women in Science

fun with kids
                Jenny and Emily Promoting Women in Science

Lansing Girls' Math & Science Day

Both Emily Weigel and Alycia Lackey are active in Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) and in the presentation of science, particularly Evolution & Natural Selection, to area girls. They worked with other GWIS members to design and present a project to illustrate these concepts. Additionally, in 2011, Emily worked with the event coordinators on the technological aspects of the event, including eco-friendly, paperless handouts for the girls to take home to continue exploring math and science on their own.

Undergraduate Workshops on Grad School and CV/Resumes

As a member of the GWIS Undergraduate Mentoring Committee, Emily Weigel helped host, develop, and present the materials for undergrads considering grad school for a 2011 workshop entitled, “Demystifying Grad School.” This workshop was designed to assess the student’s desire and ability to continue their education, as well as to provide students with practical information on how to apply to graduate schools in the sciences. This was a follow-up workshop to the CV/Resume workshop held in 2010 that was designed to prepare students for applying to summer programs, research labs, and jobs related to their field of study.

Expanding Your Horizons

Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) Conference encourages young women (grades 6-8) to become involved science, engineering and math. Graduate students Genny Kozak and Alycia Lackey ran sessions for the 2008 EYH conference on “Studying animal traits.” Hands-on activities included how animals adapt to their environments, predator-prey games, and how traits can be generated by sexual selection.

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Conservation of Endangered Sticklebacks

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, our lab is contributing to this conservation effort. We have several research projects designed to identify causal factors in the loss of the endangered species pair in Enos Lake. We are working on research questions identified as urgent priorities by the stickleback recovery team, and we communicate our research plans and findings to them to facilitate recovery efforts. In so doing, we hope to ensure that these enigmatic fish will be around in future generations. Sticklebacks are prized evolutionary and behavioral models. Their disappearance would be a serious loss to the scientific community, and to the diversity of life on our planet.

Enos Lake

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