Snail Simulation Explores Natural Selection

Photo: Two students working with a simulation

One of the most effective uses of technology in the classroom involves students working with  computer simulations. Well-made simulations offer interactive experiences that allow students to both play and learn.

High school biology teacher Michelle Odierna opened the second semester with a unit on natural selection. To begin the unit in AP Biology, Odierna used a simulated lab experience called “Darwinian Snails.”

Photo: Biology teacher Michelle Odierna speaks with a student

Biology teacher Michelle Odierna with a student.

“If it is a concept that I can get across in a way that this type of thing would really enhance student understanding. I do it.” Odierna explained.

Recognizing that students arrive with a superficial understanding of natural selection that they recall from middle school, the simulation offers a way to quickly explore the more complex, essential concepts of the unit, variation, inheritance, and selection.

“They come in with an understanding. They say, ‘survival of the fittest,’ but, at the same time, it is a little deeper than that,” Odierna said.

Photo: Three students working with a simulation

Three students working as a team on
“Darwin’s Snails” simulation

Based on recent research by biologist Robin Hadlock Seeley, the simulated lab allowed students to study shell thickness in the periwinkle snail population. By manipulating the three core concepts as variables, students can gain a deeper understanding of Darwin’s theories on natural selection.

“This activity shows what happens if there is no variation in the population, that traits have to heritable, and selection. Some traits have to be better than others. They get to see that in the simulation. They could memorize these three things, but they are more likely to remember them because they saw them happen,” Odierna said.

As students began to work with the simulation, it did not take long for them to begin attempts at gaming or breaking the system. The students happily engaged, playing while learning.

Photo: Student gaming a simulation

A student games the simulation by flooding
a single variable to see what happens.

This is something Odierna encouraged, “It makes it that much more engaging and challenging for them. That’s the point to get them to explore and manipulate the variables.”

The simulation serves as a foundation for a number of additional inquiries. The class will investigate how different types of selection impact various populations, as well as changes in gene frequencies of populations. This preparation assists student understanding about classification and even leads to an examination of the very real-world problem of antibiotic resistance.

“This is a springboard for everything else we do,” Odierna stated.

There is considerable research demonstrating the advantages of high-quality simulations in the classroom.

Studies have shown that they improve conceptual understanding. Combined with hands-on labs, students receive powerful learning opportunities that exemplify some fo the best kind of technology integration.

The simulated lab from SimBio Virtual Labs was originally funded through a Hopkinton Education Foundation grant. The series of simulations has since become a staple of the AP Biology and Environmental Science AP curriculums.

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