What Is Life? An Active Learning Activity

Is a rock alive? Courtesy of soil-net.com

Stag beetle; photo by L. Shyamal

Is a stag beetle alive? How do we know? Photo by L. Shyamal

The American Biology Teacher recently posted an online “How to Do It” article entitled “What Is Life? An Activity to Convey the Complexities of This Simple Question,” by Annie Prud’homme Généreux. In this activity, each student receives a card depicting a living or nonliving object. Groups of six students describe what features their living objects have that the nonliving ones don’t have, leading to a whole-class discussion of the “What Is Life?” question.

How might you assess student learning after this activity? One possibility would be a clicker question such as this one (courtesy of Matt Taylor):

NASA defines life as anything that has metabolism, evolves, and reproduces. According to this definition, which of these would be considered alive?

I. An infertile animal such as a mule
II. A fire
III. A sequence of DNA
IV. Bacteria
V. A computer

a. I and IV   b. II, III, and IV   c. I and III   d. IV only   e. III, IV, and V

If you prefer a more open-ended assessment tool, you might try a “Minute Paper” asking students to describe various points along the life-nonlife continuum.

This activity might be useful early in the semester for the lecture or laboratory portion of an introductory biology course. It should engage students more than a lecture describing the characteristics of life, and it should lead to a more nuanced understanding that defining life is more difficult than students might expect.

This entry was posted in Active learning, Assessment, Assignments, Collaboration, Engaging students, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What Is Life? An Active Learning Activity

  1. Kirk A. Stowe says:

    I think that the question is very interesting, but might also inlcude a virus as one of the answers. Mules are alive, but cannot reproduce. Clearly bananas are alive but cannot reproduce sexually either. What about navel oranges? Are these alive? Viruses on the other hand can reproduce and evolve, but have no metabolism outside the host. Are they alive?

    Just some interesting questions that might be included.

  2. These are great suggestions for discussion questions! I love the way these examples would get students scratching their heads and (hopefully) marveling that something so fundamental is so difficult to define.
    -Marielle

  3. Pingback: Life on Mars? Teaching Life’s Characteristics and the Process of Science | Teaching nonmajors biology

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