Using Computers to Teach Evolution


Telling kids something is cool is one thing. Getting them interested in it themselves is another.

The BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action has a team of scientists (BEACONites, if you will), led by postdoc Heather Goldsby, which regularly engages elementary school students in the wonders of science and computers. The goal is to reach students close to the age where they begin to lose interest in science and computer science—a proactive alternative to waiting until they get to college.

Goldsby’s BEACON group has successfully partnered with teachers on many occasions to bring “evolution in action” into schools.  At each event, volunteers have students first brainstorm and recognize that computers that can be found everywhere— from phones to gaming systems, household electronics to cars. The hope is that kids realize how useful and integrated computers are in their daily lives and that they “are used for more than geeky things.” From here, volunteers engage the students in how computers, as fast machines, can be used to study things that take a long time, such as evolution. With the focus on long-term processes like evolution, students can apply what they already know about environments and animals (eg. giraffes, whales, cheetahs, etc.) to understand general concepts like adaptation and natural selection in both natural and digital worlds.

Once the students have a general feel for evolution, the ‘real’ fun begins.  In small groups, the students work with a scientist to evolve either pictures (using or 3D objects (using Within each of these programs, the students start with a photo (or object) and then collectively pick ‘parents’ from a panel of photos to ‘breed’. This process repeats for as many generations as the students like (far more than can be done in the classroom visits!). During the photo picking and breeding process, the scientists can explain processes like recombination and selection. The scientists also have the opportunity to insert mutation, that is, to point out the mutation rate button; using this, the scientists explain and explore with the students how similar or different the pictures are to their parents at low or high mutation rates.

“Because the kids themselves are interacting with the process by selecting the parents, the mutation rate, and letting things evolve, they gain a more intuitive feel for how evolution works,” Goldsby notes. The volunteers have been uniformly excited and refreshed by the level of curiosity and intelligence these students have shown, as well as the amount of fun inherent in sharing the wonders of science and computers with youth.

[This is reposted, editted entry from my work with the BEACONBuzz]


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