Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Using the FAR Guide to Teach Simulations: An Example with Natural Selection

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Using the FAR Guide to Teach Simulations: An Example with Natural Selection

Article excerpt

Classroom simulations serve an important function in biology education. Whether they involve the simulation of cell division (Chinnici et al., 2004), denaturation of enzymes (Turner, 2007), genetic change in populations (Brewer & Zabinski, 1999), or ecological principles (Lauer, 2003), they can help students model complex biological processes. However, utilizing simulations in biology classrooms does not guarantee that students will come away with greater conceptual understanding. In addition to actively engaging in simulations, it is equally important for students to participate in small-group and whole-class discussions to make sense of the activity (Goodrum, 2004).

By their nature, simulations are analogies for what actually happens in the physical world (Harrison & Treagust, 2000). Research suggests that it is particularly important to be explicit when teaching with analogies, mapping all parts of the analogy (analog) to the concepts they represent (target) (Harrison & Coll, 2008). Therefore, we have transitioned to become more explicit with our students about the parts of the simulation that are analogous to what happens in nature. To change our teaching, we drew upon an approach to teaching analogies called the FAR guide, consisting of three phases: Focus, Action, and Reflection (Treagust et al., 1998; Harrison & Coll, 2008). Using this approach has helped us guide classroom discussions in a more purposeful way and has helped our students develop a more coherent understanding of biological processes and mechanisms. The purpose of this article is to share how we have applied this approach to a common simulation to teach the mechanism of natural selection.

Evolution is the theoretical backbone to the discipline of biology. The National Science Education Standards call for students in grades 9-12 to understand the basic principles of evolution by natural selection--that organisms with heritable traits best suited for a particular environment are more likely to reproduce and pass their genes to the next generation (National Research Council, 1996). As science education researchers and former secondary biology teachers, we have observed teachers commonly using a natural selection activity in which students act as predators and hunt simulated organisms (prey). Those organisms that naturally blend in with their environment survive and increase in number. Versions of this activity include using paper dots against colored fabric (National Academy of Sciences, 1998) or jelly beans against paper-constructed environments in shoe boxes (Tieman & Haxer, 2007). We use a similar version in which students "hunt" Wacky Mac brand colored noodles in a grassy area (Figure 1).

Earlier in our teaching careers, we used this type of predator-prey activity as a laboratory investigation in which students discover ideas about natural selection from collected data. We have observed other teachers using the activity in similar ways. By taking a closer look at this activity and interviewing students, we found that students often miss the concepts associated with the activity. Specifically, although students can usually assert that some organisms die off because of an unfavorable trait, they often leave out the critical role of differential reproduction and heredity of favorable traits in their explanations of natural selection after completing the activity. We have also found that students have a difficult time explaining the overarching process of natural selection, which includes many interrelated components.

Rather than presenting the activity as a laboratory, we now present it for what it really is--a simulation. We have changed our overall instructional sequence so that students first develop ideas about natural selection through examination of real-world data. Using curriculum developed by the BGuILE project at Northwestern University (http://bguile.northwestern.edu), students examine multiple types of data collected from Peter and Rosemary Grant in the Galapagos Islands during the 1970s in relation to the population of medium ground finches. …

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