Charles Darwin's Hardware Shop

Frances Vandervoort
1991 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


The purpose of this investigation is to provide students with a simple model of Darwinian evolution. Students will use easily obtained materials to construct an evolutionary tree representing specialization, diversity, and selection. This activity is appropriate for a variety of grade levels, including middle and elementary schools. It is a good introduction to units on evolution, taxonomy, and biodiversity. Because it is open-ended, there are many ways it can be organized, thus providing opportunity for discussing the nature of "progress" and "advancement" in evolution.


  • A large assortment of hardware items, including nuts, bolts, plastic pieces, wire, hinges, hooks, etc., etc., usually obtainable in bins of miscellaneous pieces at a local hardware store. Students will select items from the large assortment available in the classroom.
  • A piece of heavy cardboard at least 18 x 24 inches
  • Strong plastic tape or glue.
  • Marking pen


Since this activity is, in essence, an introduction to basic evolutionary principles, teachers need do little more than make materials available and issue brief instructions. Students are told that they are to use common hardware items to make a model of how simple structures can be changed into others by adding or subtracting parts and details. For example, a nail can be changed into a larger nail simply by increasing its size. This is represented by attaching a small nail to the cardboard, and immediately above (or to the right of it), attaching a larger nail. The next item might be a screw, which has "evolved" from a nail by adding thread and a notch on top.

Students are encouraged to use at least 20 items in their model, and are expected to present it to the class along with a rationale for its arrangement.

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