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Origami Bird Study: An Extension into its
DNA Aspects
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A recent study in Japan has added a DNA connection to Karin Westerling's Origami Bird lesson. In doing so, this has integrated an important (but simplified) molecular aspect to the process of natural selection, and this, in turn, has improved student understanding about mistaken Lamarckian (directional and teleological) aspects, and the randomness of mutations. Their general understanding of natural selection was significantly improved as well. Furthermore, this extension helps to satisfy a few of the NGSS Performance Expectations for middle and high school natural selection (see this following these excerpts from the study by Yamanoi, et al):

TO TEACHERS: The instructions, templates and handout materials for this Japanese version of Origami Birds are being developed. They will be posted as the Origami Bird DNA Extension when they are ready. So far, all the forms used in the study have been modified and are ready for use (ready for download, see below). Only the Teacher Directions and Student Instructions / worksheet need more work. One teacher, Nathan Hoekstra, has developed a sample student handout worksheet which he has kindly made available and is also available below (along with his suggestions and experience, added to OBE.Details from Dr. Yamanoi).

If you use these materials and develop your own student handout / worksheet, please share with the ENSI webmaster, along with notes of your experience and suggestions for improvement, so they can be included in the final lesson to be posted on the ENSI site. Thank you for that.

These are all downloadable and ready for use:
OBE.Details.pdf (details from Dr. Yamanoi and teacher Nathan Hoekstra)
OBE.WS.Hoekstra.pdf (teacher-made worksheet)
OBE.Paper.pdf (original paper from study by Yamanoi et al)

STUDY by T. Yamanoi, et al:
Improved “Origami Bird” Protocol Enhances Japanese Students’ Understanding of Evolution by Natural Selection: a Novel Approach Linking DNA Alteration to Phenotype Change
By Takahiro Yamanoi  , Kazuomi Suzuki, Masaharu Takemura and Osamu Sakura
Evolution: Education and Outreach, Vol. 5, Issue 2, June 2012
Volume 5, Issue 2, June 2012: Evolutionary Developmental Biology

Introduction (excerpts, with emphases added):
No teaching material “effectively connects DNA sequencing to the process of natural selection, although current evolutionary biology is closely linked to molecular biology. Current educational content must be modernized to advance evolution education.” Also, “many students fail to understand modern evolutionary concepts, such as linking genes to phenotype, and they mistakenly hold Lamarckism and orthogenesis to be the evolutionary mechanisms.” “These misconceptions may be derived from inadequate understanding of the random process in the evolutionary mechanism.”  We believed that if the students regard mutation as random, not a purposely designed process, then they will disregard Lamarckism and orthogenesis since both ideas assume evolution as a progressive, teleologically designed process.

“The “origami bird (Avis papyrus),” invented by Westerling (Westerling 1992), is designed to teach the concept of evolution by natural selection. In our study, we altered the “origami bird” protocol by incorporating a molecular mechanism. We verified the effectiveness of this improved protocol for Japanese high school students by comparing their test scores before and after the experiment.”

Discussion (emphases added):
The origami bird with the improved protocol enhanced these Japanese high school students understanding of evolutionary concepts. This was indicated by their total test scores after the experiment/discussion that increased regardless of their pre-test scores. Furthermore, judging from the student impressions, the new protocol had no influence in decreasing their motivation to perform the experiment. “

“Similar to my previous results with Westerling’s original protocol, the students improved their understanding about the timescale of evolution (“Definition of evolution” #9) and the non-inevitability of struggle in the process of natural selection (“Natural selection” #1and#2). Furthermore, they improved their understanding of mutation and rejected the notion of Lamarckism and orthogenesis. These improvements and rejections had not occurred in my previous research (Yamanoi 2010). So we conclude that our modifications of the original protocol in this study led to these improved understandings. Through the experiment and the following discussion, the students probably came to regard mutation correctly as random DNA alteration, not speciation, and then understood evolution by linking changes on the DNA level to those on the phenotype level and rejected teleological concepts. We also suggest that this improved protocol has the potential to be effective for not only Japanese high school students but also high school and undergraduate students in other countries because many previous studies have revealed that these students also hold outdated evolutionary concepts similar to Lamarckism and orthogenesis (Bardapurkar 2008). As is known, teaching materials effective for rejection of teleology are scarce in other countries as well, and hence our research may be an important first step toward filling that gap. “

Our improvement of Westerling’s original protocol yielded significant elevation of the students’ understanding of evolution, but the change was slight (average score shift was 0.67 to 0.74). Therefore, we considered further modification of our protocol as follows. The students were divided into two groups with relation to the direction of natural selection. In one group, a bird with the longest flying distance was selected. In the others, a bird with the shortest flying distance was selected. We preliminarily conducted student experiments with this new protocol, with two birds’ populations showing different evolutionary trajectories over four generations. This modification is considered to enhance understanding of the variability in the direction of natural selection: selection does not always favor the long flight, which will lead to the rejection of teleological thoughts. We expect that further verifications and improvement of our protocol will be performed in many countries.”

NGSS Performance Expectations <>:
The NGSS performance expectations for middle school and high school do specify the importance to understand the role of genetic variations and mutations in natural selection. Many people (even some teachers) may not understand these elements accurately, and therefore may pass those misunderstandings on to their students. This extension to Karin Westerling’s “Natural Selection of Origami Birds” is, therefore, a most welcome (and highly recommended) way to give students an accurate understanding of these aspects of the process. Here are those NGSS expectations (emphasis added):


Construct an explanation based on evidence that describes how genetic variations of traits in a population increase some individuals’ probability of surviving and reproducing in a specific environment. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using simple probability statements and proportional reasoning to construct explanations.]


Communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on a conceptual understanding of the role each line of evidence has relating to common ancestry and biological evolution. Examples of evidence could include similarities in DNA sequences, anatomical structures, and order of appearance of structures in embryological development.]


Construct an explanation based on evidence that the process of evolution primarily results from four factors: (1) the potential for a species to increase in number, (2) the heritable genetic variation of individuals in a species due to mutation and sexual reproduction, (3) competition for limited resources, and (4) the proliferation of those organisms that are better able to survive and reproduce in the environment. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on using evidence to explain the influence each of the four factors has on number of organisms, behaviors, morphology, or physiology in terms of ability to compete for limited resources and subsequent survival of individuals and adaptation of species. Examples of evidence could include mathematical models such as simple distribution graphs and proportional reasoning.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include other mechanisms of evolution, such as genetic drift, gene flow through migration, and co-evolution.]