Curriculum Update | August 2012 Digital Edition

Biology Evolves With New Digital Curriculum Tools

Education researchers are getting great results with biology learning tools that capitalize on kids’ love of technology.

EcoMobile is the mobile counterpart to EcoMuve

Created by a team of Harvard researchers, EcoMOBILE uses augmented reality on smartphones to help students explore natural environments like ponds and forests. 

This article, complete with an interactive slideshow, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's August 2012 digital edition.

A team of researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education witnessed the unimaginable. They handed out preprogrammed smartphones to a class of seventh-graders and set them loose around a pond. No one fooled around; YouTube was not a factor. Instead, the students got to work, using the phones to discover and record information about the pond ecosystem. In the process, they were more tuned into the surroundings, even on the molecular level, than if they had been on a tech-less field trip.

The pond program--known as EcoMOBILE, which means Ecosystems Mobile Outdoor Blended Immersive Learning Environment--is just one of a growing number of technology-based tools for engaging young students in biology concepts, developed by researchers at nonprofit organizations.

EcoMOBILE is a project codirected by Shari Metcalf and Amy Kamarainen that challenges students to complete tasks tailored to a pond ecosystem in the vicinity of their schools. As part of a four-year study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Qualcomm's Wireless Reach initiative, EcoMOBILE is a natural extension of EcoMUVE (Ecosystems Multi‐User Virtual Environments), a curriculum in which students explore two ecosystems--a pond and a forest--through a virtual environment. Both projects were created by the team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which includes Metcalf, Kamarainen, and coprincipal investigators Chris Dede and Tina Grotzer.

In EcoMUVE , the students take on different roles as scientists, such as water chemist or naturalist. These roles are extended into EcoMOBILE, where alone or in teams, they follow different established paths around the pond using their phones as guides and working at their own pace. The phones capture and display the natural environment on the screens--as you would see it when taking a photo--and lead students to preprogrammed hot spots, where information, links to videos, multiple-choice questions, or open-ended questions automatically pop up.

In addition to the pond application, which Metcalf and Kamarainen created using a Mogo Mobile augmented reality tool called FreshAiR, students use other technology on the phones to take video images of the environment or of their partner talking about some feature of the ecosystem. A new exercise enables students to measure water variables like temperature, pH, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen by using Texas Instruments' TI-Nspire graphing calculators.

"We also use an app called Footprints that lets students take a picture and then store it with its GPS coordinates," Metcalf says. "Back in the classroom, the teacher can bring up all of the students' pictures on Google Earth, see where they took their pictures and what they took pictures of, and have a class discussion about that."

While programs to investigate water ecology are nothing new--consider National Geographic Kids Network's "What's in Our Water?" site from the early 1990s--the augmented reality offered by the EcoMOBILE technology is. "We hypothesize that the technologies we use will bring something new and distinctive to this experience in allowing students to access these perspectives while outside in the context of the real pond," Kamarainen says.

Last fall, Allison Kugler, a teacher at William Diamond Middle School in Lexington, MA, was one of the first teachers to participate in the EcoMOBILE project. It was her second experience working with EcoMUVE, which she says enables students to deal with much larger volumes of data in the virtual environment than in a regular classroom environment.

EcoMOBILE "was a great way to bring the virtual world even closer to home, connecting it to what they're used to seeing in their environment," Kugler says, adding that the class saw some of the same organisms at the pond that they'd learned about in the virtual EcoMUVE environment, like a blue heron and duckweed. She says she decided to do the EcoMOBILE project in the fall because she knew it would be a great way to get her students excited about science from the start of the school year.

"We hear a lot of the kids and the teachers say, 'I always saw this stream, but I never really thought much about it, and now I'm looking at it in a whole different way,'" Kamarainen says. Students also talk about wanting to learn more about other nearby streams and ecosystems.

Metcalf describes EcoMOBILE as an evolving project with three years of research to go. One potential scenario she and Kamarainen would like to investigate is the instructions for teachers to use the FreshAiR editor, or something similar, to create their own customized pond environments for smartphones or tablets.

For now, Metcalf and Kamarainen are encouraged that the augmented reality that EcoMOBILE presents successfully focuses students' attention and gets them thinking about the science behind their environment.

How to Breed Your Dragons
Travel a little further west from Cambridge, to Concord, MA, and you'll find the Concord Consortium, where all kinds of educational research on math, science, and engineering is under way. The beneficiary of a $2.5 million Google grant and numerous NSF grants, Concord specializes in technology-based learning solutions. Three projects are currently in varying stages of research and release.

Molecular Workbench
One ever-evolving consortium project is Molecular Workbench, which started out 10 years ago as a "research-grade molecular dynamics engine that allows us to calculate the interactions among and between molecules," says Dan Damelin, the project's principal investigator.

Over time, through various NSF grants, Molecular Workbench has been expanded to provide interactive model-based activities that span physics, chemistry, biology, and biotechnology, among others. In addition to the molecular dynamics engine, Molecular Workbench consists of several additional engines. For biology, there's a DNA transcription and translation engine that enables students to manipulate a DNA sequence. Basically, Damelin says, they can adjust it, edit it, mutate it, and then transcribe it into mRNA and see that translated into an amino acid sequence. Another engine allows students to model electrons, electron clouds, and electron tunneling; a chemical reactions engine allows them to play with reactions, activation energy, and bond strength.

Damelin says Molecular Workbench is effective because the simulations take concepts that are usually very abstract to students, and enables them to "dive in at a submicroscopic level and see how things interact." When students who have used the Workbench are tested, they show greater retention and a deeper understanding, which he believes comes from the more visual learning that it provides.

Though the research phase for Molecular Workbench has officially ended, Damelin still hears from participating as well as non-participating teachers who use it in their classes, adding up to tens of thousands of students using Molecular Workbench right now. "We have teacher feedback saying they continue to use the activities even beyond projects ending that have these materials in them."

Even students who are customarily not interested in biology get drawn in by another Concord Consortium project called Geniverse, a fantastical gamelike tool where high school students breed drakes and dragons to learn about genetics and the inheritance of traits. In the game environment, students "level up" through the ranks from trainee to apprentice to journeyman and finally master. Each level provides increasingly sophisticated concepts and tasks.

"Despite the fact that dragons obviously don't exist, and this fantastical world doesn't exist, all of the traits that the dragons express and all of the genes that underlie those traits are real biological traits and genes," says senior research scientist Frieda Reichsman, adding that the genes are mainly taken from the mouse, because the mouse genome is fully sequenced and used to model human disease.

Students use pull-down menus to give the drakes or dragons traits inherited from both mother and father. By adding traits--wings, forelimbs, hind limbs, metallic or dull coat--students get a visual representation of which traits are dominant and which are recessive. Students practice scientific argumentation using the Journal of Drake Genetics, where they post claims and evidence to support them. The journal, based on blog software, enables the class to discuss its findings.

Arthur Libby, who teaches biology at Brewer High School in Brewer, ME, has incorporated Geniverse into his curriculum for two years. "The students love it, and it covers all of the key genetic principles I need to teach," he says. Libby adds that Geniverse exposes students to a very authentic experience of genetic inquiry because they get invested in "diving into all the different scenarios and rules, come up with a theory on, say, nose spikes, and sometimes they can explain it and sometimes they can't."

Reichsman says that over the next two years of the five-year Geniverse research span, they'll be investigating whether intro biology classes can learn more deeply and whether they can go further than they would have otherwise.

Evolution Readiness was a three-year NSF-funded project that just got a year's extension last September. The purpose, according to senior scientist Paul Horwitz, is to teach fourth-graders foundational evolution so they're prepared for it in middle school and high school.

Horwitz says evolution is one of the hardest concepts for kids to learn. Their own rapid changes and short lives thus far "make it hard for them to understand very long periods of time."

Evolution Readiness combines computer models with offline, hands-on activities to help kids make the connection between the virtual and what they see in the real world. In one activity, students plant seeds and "grow mountains" virtually, to test how the plants adapt--slightly, with each new generation--to the changing environment.

To test students' understanding, the team developed a test called the Concept Inventory for Evolution Readiness and administered it first to 100 students in three different school districts who had not used the Evolution Readiness materials and then, in the following two years, to new fourth-graders in those same schools after they had used the materials. The good news, Horwitz says, is that the test outcomes showed a small gain, enough to show that students could learn evolution at this age. 

At first, teachers participating in Evolution Readiness workshops resisted. "They're not used to the technology, but they're also not used to the subject matter and they don't like to be in that position," Horwitz says. But by the second year, teachers were more confident and reported that the students gave the program momentum. "I worried that planting seeds was going to be a boring activity and some kids planted 700 seeds," Horwitz says.

And the team now has a mountain of data to analyze for correlations between success at the modeling, success on the test, how well students answer questions, and so forth. They'll use this data to improve the materials, Horwitz says, adding, "If we make it easier to teach, then we're doing something."

Learn More

  • To access EcoMUVE, teachers can register online and receive access to the downloads of the two modules and curriculum materials. EcoMOBILE recently finished the first year of a four-year research project and is not currently available to the public.
  • Evolution Readiness activities are available from this site, which provides background and points to a portal.
  • Molecular Workbench is available for install online. The team recently won a Google grant specifically to convert the project to a web-based environment.
  • Geniverse is still being developed, but a beta version is currently available online.