Learning with Digital Evolution Software

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Title of Abstract: Learning with Digital Evolution Software

Name of Author: Robert Pennock
Author Company or Institution: Michigan State University
Author Title: Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Evolutionary Biology, General Biology, Genetics
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: Avida-ED Digital evolution Evolution education Inquiry-based education Science practices

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Amy Lark, Michigan State University Wendy Johnson, Michigan State University Louise Mead, Michigan State University Jim Smith, Michigan State University Gail Richmond, Michigan State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The BEACON NSF Center for the Study of Evolution in Action has several education projects to develop software and curricula to allow students to learn about evolution and the nature of science using specially developed versions of the same model systems that are used for basic research in experimental evolution. The most advanced is Avida-ED, which allows students to engage in authentic science practices using a well-established digital evolution research platform that has been adapted for undergraduate use. Avida-ED is an agent-based model system in which populations of digital organisms compete in a computational environment where their code evolves as natural selection acts upon random variations that arise during self-replication. Because the causal processes of variation, inheritance and selection are realized in the system, Avida-ED allows open-ended evolution and is a truly experimental system. Model exercises, several of which use both biological and digital organisms, have been developed specifically to advance Vision and Change goals. Specifically, Avida-ED fosters (i) understanding evolution as a core explanatory framework, (ii) inquiry-based experience with scientific practices, and (iii) introducing reasoning based on models. Avida-ED has been used successfully in both lower and upper division courses for both majors and non-majors in colleges and universities across the country.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: To document the effectiveness of digital evolution as a learning tool, a national study is in progress that looks at student outcomes in a variety of classroom settings. The study takes a mixed methods, multiple-case approach and examines how biology instructors are using Avida-ED in their classrooms and assessing student learning outcomes. We recruited instructors from eight institutions across the United States for a total of ten cases, each consisting of a single course. The cases cover a broad range of course types from an AP biology class at a private Catholic high school to an introductory honors biology course for non-majors to an upper-division evolution course at a very large public research university. To characterize how instructors use Avida-ED and effects on student learning, we drew from a rich array of data sources including instructor interviews, a pre/post assessment of student learning and acceptance of evolution, a survey of student reactions to Avida-ED, and various classroom artifacts (e.g., course syllabi, assignments, student work, etc.).

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: To determine the degree to which Avida-ED is successful as a tool for learning about evolution, students were assessed prior and subsequent to engagement in lessons with the software. The assessment consisted of a combination of two constructed response items, which focused on fundamental evolutionary concepts, and ten forced choice items intended to measure student acceptance of evolution. The constructed response items were scored according to a rubric, and these scores were combined to create an overall content score. The forced choice items, based on a 5-point Likert scale, were combined to create an overall acceptance score. These metrics, the content and acceptance scores, were used to make cross-case comparisons of student learning and acceptance from pre- to post-test. Subsequent to instructions, students were also asked to complete a survey on their experiences with Avida-ED. These data were used to help gauge student interest and engagement with the program, and have proven useful to the Avida-ED Curriculum Development team as we continue to develop lesson materials and improve the software. Some of the items were also helpful in reinforcing student assessment responses or identifying lingering misconceptions. During interviews conducted prior and subsequent to classroom implementation of Avida-ED, instructors were asked to provide feedback with regard to how well Avida-ED met their objectives. Specifically, we asked them about the greatest affordances and challenges of teaching with Avida-ED, and about the degree to which Avida-ED allows them to engage students in inquiry-based activities.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Preliminary data show significant student learning gains and overcoming of common misconceptions following lessons with Avida-ED. In lower-division courses (e.g., Intro Bio) student understanding of fundamental evolutionary concepts – such as the origin of genetic diversity and the basic elements of Darwinian natural selection – as measured by content score increased significantly. Student acceptance of evolution as a real phenomenon that explains the diversity of life on earth and that is based on scientific evidence also increased significantly. There was also a significant, positive relationship between the change in both content and acceptance scores from pre- to post-test, suggesting that the more students can observe and test evolutionary processes in action, the more they accept evolution as true. These preliminary results add to the growing body of evidence showing that integrating content and practices is one of the most effective ways to teach science. Student surveys have revealed positive reactions to Avida-ED, with many students responding that they like that Avida-ED allows them to observe evolution in action and to carry out experiments of their own design. When asked about the most important thing that they learned from using Avida-ED, many students responded that evolution is observable and testable, and that they had a better understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. Instructors have been enthusiastic, with most appreciating the program’s ease of use and the ability for students to see evolution in action and design experiments to test their own hypotheses. One representative research university professor wrote: “[T]here is no other system that allows students to focus on the most important aspects of experimental science (hypothesis generation, experiment design/implementation/re-design/analysis, etc.) than Avida-ED. Avida-ED allows the students to concentrate on the 'thinking' parts of experimental science as opposed to the 'doing' parts.”

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: One barrier to change is that teaching evolution has several unique challenges. Besides the obvious problems caused by the social controversy, a major challenge is overcoming some of the conceptual and practical difficulties. For example, it has traditionally been taught just as a historical science – something that happened in the past – with slow and imperceptible changes occurring over millennia, rather than as an ongoing process. BEACON research focuses on observing evolutionary processes in action in both biological and computational environments and Avida-ED promises to use this approach to similarly transform evolution education by allowing students to observe and test the evolutionary processes themselves. The challenge is how to develop faculty expertise in teaching with a truly open-ended experimental evolution system and to change the curriculum so that evolution is presented as a prime exemplar of how science is done. We will discuss ways in which we are beginning to scale up these efforts.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: The Avida-ED software, model exercises and instructor support material is available for free from the Avida-ED project web site: https://avida-ed.msu.edu. We have presented workshops at professional conferences including National Association of Biology Teachers, National Science Teachers Association, Society for the Study of Evolution, BioQUEST SELECTION workshop, Artificial Life 13, Michigan Science Teachers Association, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and many individual biology departments. We are seeking grant support to set up a national ‘instruct the instructors’ faculty development network.

Acknowledgements: This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement No. DBI-0939454. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.