Online tool speeds up evolution education
February 7, 2018
often learn best when they can apply what they're learning. In the world
of science, that means engaging in the practice of science. But this can
be a challenge for teachers when dealing with subjects that are hard to
observe--like biological evolution. The solution? Digital
evolution--computer software in which populations of digital organisms
Avida is a digital evolution software used by biologists and engineers
in which digital organisms replicate, mutate and compete with other
digital organisms for resources in their virtual environment. Avida is
said to provide a true instance of evolution, not a simulation.
Recognizing that Avida could be a powerful educational tool, researchers
developed an educational version of the software called Avida-ED.
Amy Lark, an assistant professor of science education at Michigan
Technological University, says Avida-ED is a more user-friendly program
than Avida, a research platform for conducting and analyzing experiments
with self-replicating and evolving computer programs. Avida-ED allows
students to observe and experiment without any specialized computer
science knowledge. Lark and colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU)
recently published the results of a nationwide, multiple-case study in
The American Biology Teacher detailing how Avida-ED curriculum was used
in high school and college classrooms.
Lark's co-authors include Robert Pennock, developer of Avida-ED and a
professor of philosophy at MSU; Gail Richmond, a professor of teacher
education at MSU; Louise Mead, education director of MSU's BEACON Center
for the Study of Evolution in Action; and Jim Smith, a professor of
biology at MSU. Lark also co-authored a practitioner piece with Wendy
Johnson, a biology teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that described how
Johnson implemented Avida-ED in her AP Biology class; the practitioner
piece was published as a companion to the multiple-case study in the
same issue of American Biology Teacher.
Start with the Basics
Teaching the basics of evolution is difficult. To assess Avida-ED's
effectiveness, as well as how it might impact understanding and even
accepting evolution, the researchers selected 11 instructors teaching at
eight different US institutions to implement the Avida-ED program into
Students started with a common assessment to gauge their understanding
of the scientific principles of evolution. Teachers would then provide a
tutorial on Avida-ED so that students would understand how to use the
software and what they were seeing on their computer screens.
Lesson plans varied widely, but each instructor would cover the concepts
of variation and randomness. To apply those concepts, students could,
for example, predict what an organism would look like after replication,
based on the mutation rate. After observing what happened at the
individual level, they could consider what happens at the population
level. After that, they might design an experiment of their own.
Grasp the Science
using Avida-ED, students received structured lessons that targeted
misconceptions--for instance, that evolution is completely random. The
process shows the differences between random mutation and natural
selection. As students set up experiments, they could observe that
mutations are random, but selection is not.
Once the curriculum was over, students took the same common assessment
they took at the start of the course. Lark and her colleagues would then
compare changes in scores. In most instances, where content scores
increased, so did acceptance of evolution.
"My interest is in effectively teaching the science," Lark says,
explaining that understanding or learning about something and accepting
it are not the same thing. "It's possible not to accept evolution, but
understand the process and how it works. There are also people who
accept evolution, but have no idea how it works. Avida-ED is an
effective tool no matter the perspective you approach it from.
"The goal is not to change people's minds," Lark says. "The goal is to
help them understand the science."
Lark is working with colleagues at Michigan Tech to potentially develop
a program similar to Avida-ED that could be used for teaching climate