Teaching evolution in action
Because evolution takes place over countless years, it can be one of the more challenging subjects to teach, especially using traditional teaching methods.
At Michigan State University, a team of researchers has developed software that allows students to watch as evolution actually takes place. Known as Avida-ED, the technology is already used in university and high school classrooms around the country, teaching students evolutionary concepts.
Now, the MSU team of biologists, philosophers and computer scientists will be using a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop, test and broadly disseminate Avida-ED.
“In digital evolution, all of the elements of the evolutionary mechanism become visible,” said Robert Pennock, a professor in MSU’s Lyman Briggs College, who leads the project. “Avida-ED allows students to do real experimental evolution in a hands-on, inquiry based way.”
The virtual environment not only allows students to observe digital organisms as they evolve in real time, they also can use the software to design experiments to test evolutionary hypotheses that they have generated on their own.
“We want to help students learn not just about evolution but also about scientific reasoning and practice,” Pennock said. “Avida-ED gives students the same digital evolution environment that we use as researchers. With their very own evolutionary lab bench they can follow where their curiosity leads.”
The program is based on Avida, a digital platform used for evolution research at the MSU BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.
Biology instructors across the country are already using Avida-ED in their classrooms with positive results. This new grant will let MSU researchers upgrade Avida-ED with new user-requested functions and new model exercises, and to expand its use nationwide.
Pennock and his colleagues also will use the funding to host an annual series of professional development workshops that will teach undergraduate instructors from around the country how to use Avida-ED.
“Participants will return to their institutions and train others, greatly expanding our active community of instructors,” he said. “We can’t wait to see what exciting new ways they think of to use and extend this tool.”
Other team members include Richard Lenski, Hannah Professor of microbial ecology; Louise Mead, BEACON’s Education Director; Charles Ofria, professor of computer science and engineering; and Jim Smith, professor of biology.