Getting to Know Bertha Vazquez, Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science

May 5, 2015

As a middle school science teacher with 25 years of classroom experience, I’ve had to teach many science concepts that were beyond my area of expertise. I have taught everything from the laws of motion to meteorology — often keeping just a chapter ahead of my students as I learned the difference between an occluded front and a stationary front.

My experiences are not unique.  Middle school science teachers are our system’s jacks of all trades. It is virtually impossible to become an expert in all of our content areas, at least not initially. 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.

Like the countless teachers who have kindly opened up their file cabinets and generously offered me lesson plans and lab activities, I wanted to provide something meaningful for my fellow science teachers. Science understanding is constantly expanding. It is very difficult for science teachers to keep up with all of the latest research across all of the subject areas they teach. The study of evolution, like many life sciences, has come alive with the overwhelming genetic research available to scientists today.  Therefore, two years ago, I began to offer my fellow science teachers in Miami-Dade County workshops on evolution. Participating middle school science teachers left the workshops with the most up-to-date concepts of natural selection and common ancestry. It was my hope they would return to their classrooms and confidently cover these topics, fulfilling their curricular requirements and leaving their students with the wonder and awe that accompanies good science teaching.

In March of this year, I became the Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, (TIES), a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The purpose of TIES is to give middle school science teachers all of the content knowledge and teaching tools they need to effectively cover their state standards on evolution and natural selection. TIES materials, available for free on the RDF 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 April 3 thanks to another important collaboration, this time with the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami. Thirty middle school science teachers participated in a daylong workshop that included several museum scientists as speakers. The museum scientists shared research on phylogeny, fossilized amber, the fossil preparation of Xiphactinus, a 475 million-year-old fish, and provided a sneak peek of future museum exhibits. A representative of shared an online lab on natural selection.  And, as a most special treat, the participants were able to play with a pet silver fox. These foxes are the result of artificial selection experiments in Siberia. After allowing only the tamest foxes to breed in every generation for 50 years, Russian scientists have created a breed of fox with markedly decreased stress hormone levels. This has created a gentle group of foxes who resemble dogs in both physical and behavioral characteristics. The daylong session was videotaped and will also be available soon on the RDFRS website, along with the other free resources.

The next goal of TIES is to train teachers across the country who can provide similar workshops for middle school science teachers. If you are a science teacher, teacher leader or university professor preparing the next generation of science teachers and can envision yourself leading TIES workshops in your area, please contact me. Within every experienced classroom teacher lays a wealth of knowledge just waiting to be tapped.  We are our own best resources.


head shot Bertha VazquezBertha Vazquez, director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science, has a BA in biology from the University of Miami and a Masters in Science Education from Florida International University. She’s a  recipient of several national and local honors, including the 2014 Samsung’s $150,000 Solve For Tomorrow Contest. She can be reached at

3 comments on “Getting to Know Bertha Vazquez, Director of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science

  • TIES is a flat out brilliant initiative. Thanks to the RDFRS for conceiving and implementing it. Thanks to Bertha for her obvious enthusiasm, competence and commitment to it. I hope it will be a great success.

    A pop out seeking specific donations towards such programs (direct, practical, needed) is much more to my taste than a site booster cultivating a group strengthening around a personality. (Yuk, our very problem in the US is us’n’themness).

    My gratitude to Richard is extraordinary. The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion are two of the most substantial course corrections I’ve ever experienced. The loss of the site’s ability to publicly introspect on its directions and purpose, though, is the most spectacular example of its current dumbing down. “Go to the blue question mark” is like robbing the site of its own cortex. It renders “membership” of such a thing inconceivable.

    I would like to contribute to specific programs like this. I think the site could thrive on the back of the progams it initiates and has funded on their own merits.

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  • I wish to express my appreciation to Bertha Vazquez for her accomplishments in evolutionary biology at the Middle school level. It is very understandable how difficult it is that one must be a jack of trades at that level. It is difficult enough to keep up with the latest ideas in only one discipline, much less many fields. Although most of my career was teaching biology at the college level, I did teach one semester at the junior high level when I first began.

    Perhaps it is most important to teach some basic principles such as there is variation among individuals in any population and that not all of them survive the rigors of environmental stresses, rather than getting too involved in details. The subject that gave my college students the most problems was genetics. Whatever could be done at the Middle school level along these lines would be very helpful in advancing the concepts of heredity and evolutionary biology as these two fields are conceptually integrated.

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  • Well done. Being a jack of all trades is a formidable task but it is doable. I’m not a teacher, but I do some teaching in my house. I am a science enthusiast and cover chemistry mostly, some physics, some biology, some anthropology, some history.
    All you need is a book and go through it cover to cover and sometimes repeat chapters.

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