Web-based Computer Simulation Exercises for the Study of Evolutionary Genetics

Matthew Hamilton (Biology) · Round 1

I have been convinced by experience that simulation exercises help students learn and understand. This project has helped me assess that impression more rigorously.

Matthew Hamilton

Within the broader topic of evolutionary biology, the five mechanisms of genetic change (genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, natural selection, and systems of mating) constitute the field of evolutionary genetics. The quantitative nature of evolutionary genetics makes it a challenge to most students, who often lack exposure to deductive reasoning, the process of constructing and using models, or the quantitative currencies of models (e.g. probabilities). Interactive computer simulations are a key pedagogical tool available to help students understand model-based biology. This project focused on web-based simulations designed to more effectively teach evolutionary genetics.

The project involved three activities: 1) computer programming to make user-friendly, web-based simulations that focus on a range of evolutionary genetics topics in collaboration with UIS, 2) creation of supporting instructional materials (learning goals, video, self-assessment questions) for simulations, and 3) assessment of student learning outcomes in three existing courses. The broadest goals of the project were to construct a series of well-designed and well-produced teaching simulations and to assess their impact on student comprehension of quantitative concepts in evolutionary genetics.

The simulations focused on two topics that are central to the study of molecular evolution. Both topics are considered difficult to teach and learn as they involve models with numerous parameters and predicted patterns that are challenging for the uninitiated. In general terms, both of the simulations presented richly realized simulations where students could experiment with key quantities related to each concept. They had the opportunity for experiential learning and application, and they were able to visualize the resulting patterns. Overall, the results of this project suggest that simulations can improve student comprehension of complex topics in evolutionary genetics and that students perceive such simulations as useful.

The simulations for "Neutral Theory" and "Nuc Substitution" are now online and can be viewed at evolutiongenetics.georgetown.edu, a site that houses the simulations created to accompany Project Investigator Matthew Hamilton's textbook, Population Genetics. After creating these two simulations for the ITEL project, Hamilton continued to collaborate with CNDLS staff on creating additional simulations, also available on the Evolution Genetics website.

In the News

The Prospect Issue 3: "ITEL Thematic Spotlight: Games & Simulations" (page 13)