Using Simulations to Discuss Basic Concepts in Evolution

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SWBAT to visualize many ideas related to evolution using these interactive online simulations!

Big Idea

Make concepts like the bottleneck effect, non-random mating, and stabilizing, disruptive, and directional selection come to life for students with these great online tools!

Notes for the Teacher

Each year, I purchase a single site license for the biology activities on BiologyLabsOnline.  It costs $40, is good for one year, and the kids and I have a really productive session using the simulations to discuss evolution unit terminology and concepts like stabilizing, directional, and disruptive selection, convergent and divergent evolution, non random mating, bottleneck effect, coevolution, and more.  There are multiple activities to choose from and you can reduce the price of the license if you choose to purchase single activities rather than the entire 12 part package.  You can also sample the site for a free 24 hour period.  I share all of this information with my students as well so that they can continue to access the materials on their own for additional support if they choose to do that.

I like that having this visual experience with our scientific terms gives students a point of reference to recall when they are reviewing for their assessment and generally reflecting upon their learning and asking clarifying questions.  This process is also evident during the class session; because we are all viewing the same screen and watching different variables affect the outcome in populations, we generate a wide range of questions that can be answered using simulation evidence in real time.In the past, I have experimented with broader licenses so that each student pair could use the activities in lab activities, but I have found that the full group format leads to better questions that we can all investigate and learn from together.  The site may not have the most snazzy, eye catching graphics, true.  But I have yet to find another resource that impacts my students in the way that these simple activities do.  I have found that students are engaged throughout the session and input questions and suggestions easily in our group conversation without a lot of structure from me.  I attribute this in part to the time of year (spring semester when students have absorbed our classroom culture and routines), the progression of student maturity levels and communication skills, and the nature of the subject matter which feels a bit less intimidating than other topics we have explored earlier in the year like protein synthesis and ATP.

The three lab simulation activities I concentrate on for this unit are listed below.  I always work with the first two simulations and depending upon the year/class, I bring in the third one based upon student questions, interests, and our timeline leading into final exams month.

  • Evolution Lab (using birds that live on two islands named Darwin Island and Wallace Island)
  • Population Genetics Lab (using a moth population that have three basic color phenotypes:  white, black, and brown)
  • Population Ecology Lab (using hawks, birds, and insects to demonstrate ecological predator/prey and relationships and issues of carrying capacity)

The Classroom Flow: Introducing Today's Activity

10 minutes

1.  Ask students to take out their Darwin & evolution notes document and evolution unit vocabulary list.  Remind them that the term list is there for them as a review resource both today and through the end of the unit.  

2.  Tell students that today you will be discussing many of the explanations outlined on the notes document.  On this document, there are also eight review questions that they can use to support their understanding, memory, and assessment preparation going forward.  

3.  Tell students that today you will be working together to visualize some evolutionary concepts and terms using an online simulation website called BiologyLabsOnline.  Bring up the screen on the projector.

  • Note:  Today is a different kind of day for students in our biology class; they will be viewing, listening, and connecting what they see happen in each simulation.  I do not find that students have a hard time staying focused or connected to the whole group screen work; students are curious about what will happen in each trial after we have manipulated variables and they will want to call out specific things to manipulate in the simulation in order to make predictions and see for themselves how each term/concept plays out in this virtual 'real world.'  Although in the past I have bought more expensive licenses so that students could do all of this on their own in pairs, I have found that they get more out of the group scenario where all questions are welcome and can be discussed and answers proven together using the simulation as a team.

The Classroom Flow: Working with Simulation #1 (Birds on the Islands)

10 minutes

See my video demo below for ways to to use this particular simulation using two islands to compare and contrast the impact of differing environments on similar sets of birds or differing bird adaptations and how they shift over generations on two ecologically different islands.

The key to this exercise is to notice the connection between precipitation and seed texture:  the less rain you input, the harder the seeds will be and that in turn will impact the type of beak size that is favored in that specific environment.  After going through one round of the simulation, be sure to question students to make sure that these connections make sense to them:  that the advantage of a bigger beak is an increased ability to crush hard seeds while in soft seeded environments (with lots of rain), it is better to have smaller beaks that allow the birds to fly up into the sky faster due to less weight.

 For all three simulations, keep the following ideas in mind:

1.  Always do a test run for students with no significant change in variables just so they can get acquainted with the tool.

2.  Show the evolutionary concept first and then refer to their notes document and post the term and definition on the board.

3.  Allow time for play:  when you ask students to suggest variables to investigate or explore different ways to present the data based upon the tools available for each simulation, it prompts engagement, curiosity, and allows students to prove to themselves that these phenomena occur.

The Classroom Flow: Working with Simulation #2 (Moth Population)

15 minutes

Check out my short videos to support your use of the moth simulation program.  Here is part one which talks about how I use the simulation and what specific evolutionary terms I highlight with students:

and part two of my video support using the moth simulation.

You'll find that you spend more time with this simulation because there is more of interest for you to work through.  See my video clips showing how I use the tool to discuss bottleneck effect, types of selection (disruptive, directional, stabilizing), and non random mating.

The key to this simulation is to tie in what students already know from genetics (specifically, intermediate inheritance) to the shifts in this moth population coloration over generations.  Once they connect the changes in colors to that prior knowledge, they can start to predict shifts in the population.

The Classroom Flow: Working with Simulation #3 (Hawks, Birds, and Insects)

10 minutes

If there is time, you can work with this final simulation.  This one is more complex because there are three species of birds and two different insect food sources available to manipulate as variables impacting all of the species throughout the simulation.  I use it to show co-evolution, carrying capacity, and to introduce terms that we will be using in the next unit such as carrying capacity.  I really like that these simulations give me many entry points to review, introduce, or deepen our understanding of both evolution and ecology concepts.  The more students can see how many connections there are between our areas of study, the more equipped they will be to handle complex essay and multiple choice assessments because their depth of knowledge and familiarity will carry across from one area to another in a fluid way.

The Classroom Flow: Wrapping Up

10 minutes

1.  Refer students again to their notes document and the term list for this unit.  Remind them that both resources are useful for review.

2.  Ask them to turn briefly to their seat partners to check in and discuss questions #5-8 on the back of the notes document that relate to the work you did together with the simulations today in class. Tell students you will take questions tomorrow.  

  • Note:  Typically, students will want to review the bottleneck and founder's effect in relation to the concept of genetic drift and how random chance is the driver of these processes.

3.  Remind students again that this web resource is available to them at home and put the web address up on the board:

4.  Pass out the evolution practice quiz document for students to utilize as a self check moving into our final unit activities.  I also keep a copy of the practice quiz master/key document in the classroom for them to refer to and ask questions about over the course of the unit.  I remind them of their many resources:  their term list, their document from today's lesson, our slide presentation and textbook chapters, and this brief unit outline/summary document.  

5.  At the end of our unit on evolution, I asked students to reflect back upon their learning in writing.  Many students mentioned our time working with these simulations.  Check out one of my student's comments about working with these resources.  This student articulated what many of my students shared with me:  that they liked seeing things happen, not just hearing about them in history.  They also liked having something to refer to when they needed to ask a conceptual question.  Instead of asking me what something was in theory, they could show it to me on the screen and ask why that particular result had happened.