LSU Laboratory School teacher Cummins traces Darwin's childhood footsteps in England


LSU Laboratory School Life Science teacher and Elena and Albert LeBlanc Endowed Professor, Catherine Cummins, travelled to the United Kingdom on a Fund For Teachers Fellowship this summer. The fellowship allowed her to trace Charles Darwin’s youthful footsteps in order to provide her students visual evidence of his life.

Fund for Teachers enriches the personal and professional growth of teachers and supports them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe.

Fellowships funded are those that will have the greatest impact on teacher practice, on the academic lives of their students and on their school communities.

In order to receive these fellowships, applicants had to submit a proposal detailing why they should win. Fund For Teachers ranks proposals that articulate creative, thoughtful summer projects and demonstrate potential for teacher learning. Fund for Teachers honors the professionalism of dedicated teachers and values their judgment as to what best impacts their practice.

Louisiana’s science curriculum is structured so that students first encounter specialization in Life Science in seventh grade. Cummins is usually the first formal exposure the entire grade has to the theory of evolution.

“One cannot truly understand the diversity of life and how it came to be without an understanding of evolution; therefore, it is essential that I am successful in my students’ introduction to it,” said Cummins.

Cummins proposed traveling to the UK to photograph and video locations of Charles Darwin’s childhood & youth.

“I find the life story of Charles Darwin fascinating and love telling it to my students.  However there is very little visual media to go with the early part of his story.  It is this part of the story that my students are most interested in – the story of Darwin at their age and his struggles to define himself.  To better reach children of this media-rich era, I needed new, multi-media resources to bring Darwin to life.  With this fellowship, I recorded the environs of Darwin’s childhood and young adulthood to aid in my teaching of evolution.  I wanted to learn about him by walking in his footsteps in the countryside of England and Wales and at Cambridge University.  I wanted to see where he went to school, the houses he lived in, and those of the women he loved.  I wanted to experience what it must have been like to grow up where he did, and since much of it remains in its rural state, I was be able to do that.  While there, I kept a journal of my trip for later reflection and information and did a travel blog.  Much of Darwin’s adult life on the HMS Beagle and later in London is featured on-line and in video productions, so I did not visit those sites.  My students benefit more from my knowledge of Darwin at their age, which is set in the West Midlands of England and Wales,” said Cummins.

Cummins realized information about these formative years is relevant to her middle school students and better serves as an entry point to instruction on evolution in the classroom and online. By looking at the development of the evolution theory over time alongside Darwin’s’ biography, students are more likely to understand evolution and how he came to the theory. Cummins teaches evolution using his biography because her students can see through his path and eyes how he constructed his idea, which improves student’s comprehension of the subject. 

“Understanding evolution requires a grasp of the long periods of geological time, basic probability, and a rudimentary knowledge of the diversity of life and natural history.  Most students come to me with none of these.  I must teach the assumptions of natural selection so that the students can see how it works as the mechanism for evolution.  I have tried many approaches during my career and find that story-telling is a vital teaching skill.  When I teach the assumptions of natural selection in the way that Charles Darwin himself discovered them, then I have much greater success,” said Cummins.

When conducting research for her classroom presentation, Cummins could find almost no images of his youth to show students. 2009 was the 200th anniversary of his birth, but besides two exhibits featuring him, there still were not a lot of available pictures until his early 20s when he boards the Beagle. Cummins wrote this fellowship so her curriculum can be improved with illustrations to help students comprehend his life.

“I have literally seen my students sit up in their seats and lean forward when I begin to tell stories of his childhood and teenage adventures.  Darwin was unsuccessful at much of his schooling because he always preferred to be outside hunting, fishing, and collecting insects. Once hooked on Darwin’s life, it is much easier for them to start thinking about his ideas.  Darwin’s personal biography makes him very approachable and shows how much he struggled with the social effects of his ideas even within his own family.  Putting him in his time and context also enlightens students about change in cultures over time.  Because they already know the story ends with Darwin becoming one of the most famous scientists of all time, they are immediately hooked. I find the life story of Charles Darwin fascinating and love telling it to my students. It is this part of the story that my students are most interested in – the story of Darwin at their age and his struggles to define himself,” said Cummins.

After visiting his birth home in Shrewsbury, Cummins visited Darwin’s grandfathers’ home and cousins’ home. She saw the church he was baptized in, and then the one he attended, along with the park he played in and his elementary school. Shrewsbury survived World War II, so it exists virtually the same as it was during his youth. Cummins stayed in a bed and breakfast that had been built in 1409. Visiting these locations and tracing his steps to even the places he played brings his childhood to an entirely new light, allowing visualization of his youth 150 years ago.

Some challenges she faced on her journey was the fact that many of the locations where he grew up were virtually impossible to enter because they are now in private hands or closed to the public. For example, the home Darwin was born in is now a tax assessor office. Cummins worked ahead of time to ensure visits to the vital locations, and ended up seeing the room he was born in, then touring the entire home the next day. Another obstacle she faced was taking photos of these private locations. To deter confrontations, Cummins planned beforehand with Cambridge and other locations.

“I’ve always loved history and science, and through this experience I got to do both,” said Cummins. “Because of this fellowship, I now have more than 2000 images and on-the-ground experience to share as a teacher. I have already shared my Fellowship at the Cicil J. Picard Educator Excellence Symposium and Celebration. I will be speaking to the LSU Laboratory School faculty at faculty meetings with a focus on encouraging the other teachers to apply for a fellowship. I will also be presenting my work as a unit for teaching at the Louisiana Science Teachers Association Meeting in October.”

Before coming to the LSU Laboratory School to be with both of her children, Dr. Cummins was Assistant Professor of Clinical Practice in the College of Education.  She received her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction in 1992 and has published and presented at the national and international level.  Now that her children are older, she is reviving the research side of her career.

About University Lab School
The University Laboratory School was established by the College of Education, now known as the College of Human Sciences & Education, of Louisiana State University and has operated under its auspices for nearly 100 years. This coeducational school exists as an independent system to provide training opportunities for pre- and in-service teachers and to serve as a demonstration and educational research center. The school is located on the main campus of LSU in Baton Rouge.

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About CHSE
The College of Human Sciences & Education (CHSE) is a nationally accredited division of Louisiana State University. Formed in 2012, CHSE brings together programs and capitalizes on individual strengths to create a dynamic new college that addresses the socially significant issues we face as a state and nation. The College is comprised of the School of Education, the School of Leadership and Human Resource Development, the School of Kinesiology, the School of Library and Information Science, the School of Social Work, and the University Laboratory School. These combined schools offer 8 undergraduate degree programs and 18 graduate programs, enrolling more than 1,900 undergraduate and 977 graduate students. The College is committed to achieving the highest standards in teaching, research, and service and is continually working to improve its programs.

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