Academic journal article Science Scope

Genetics with Dragons: Using an Online Learning Environment to Help Students Achieve a Multilevel Understanding of Genetics

Academic journal article Science Scope

Genetics with Dragons: Using an Online Learning Environment to Help Students Achieve a Multilevel Understanding of Genetics

Article excerpt

Genetics, a core topic of biology in both middle and high school, is difficult to teach and learn (Duncan et al. 2009; Tsui and Treagust 2010). This is in part because genetic phenomena span multiple organizational levels, many of which are invisible (e.g., cells, molecules) and arise from the behavior of entities unfamiliar to students (e.g., genes, proteins). In addition, the notion that genetic information merely specifies the structure (and consequently the function) of proteins is rather counterintuitive to children (Lewis and Kattmann 2004). However, knowing that genes provide instructions for making proteins and that proteins have many functions that ultimately give rise to physical traits is a powerful and generative understanding that can explain a plethora of genetic phenomena (Allchin 2002).

Current instructional practices tend to gloss over the causal mechanisms that link genes to traits (Duncan, Rogat, and Yarden 2009; Pavlova and Kreher 2013) in favor of an approach focused on patterns of correlations between genes and traits, namely dominant and recessive inheritance. In contrast, A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) place new emphasis--starting in middle school life science--on the central role of proteins in bringing about traits.

The Concord Consortium and our collaborators have developed a free digital genetics game, Geniventure, with an engaging narrative featuring dragons that need to be saved from extinction and highlighting the role of proteins in genetics. Geniventure runs on any modern web browser; it also runs on iPads, Chromebooks, and other tablets. Geniventure leverages our popular Geniverse software that has been used in classrooms by nearly 150,000 students over the last eight years, with approximately one-third of them being middle school students. We redesigned the original Geniverse to enhance learning by this younger audience and to include the multilevel components responsible for physical traits. Through scaffolded virtual investigations, students first explore the physical traits that result from allele combinations, then dive deeper by zooming into cells and manipulating the proteins that ultimately give rise to those traits.

The real genes behind the dragons

Scientists learn from model species and apply what they have learned to a target species (e.g., the mouse is a model species for human genetic disease). In Geniventure, small dragon-like organisms called drakes serve as the model organism for dragons. There is real biology behind the drake genes and traits, which have been carefully compiled from the actual genes and associated traits of the anole lizard, mouse, fruit fly, zebrafish, and other model species. The genes that affect drake traits, such as wing development and skin color, are genes that are involved in the development of those traits in real organisms.

For example, the albino gene is modeled after the anole lizard gene for tyrosinase, the central enzyme in the pathway for making the pigment melanin. The recessive allele results in a misshapen and inactive enzyme, causing a malfunction in protein binding and catalytic activity. Thus, in a homozygous recessive drake, there is an absence of pigment (melanin) in cells. Drakes that are homozygous for the recessive albino allele (c/c) have scales that are translucent white, completely lacking pigment (Figure 1). Just like albinism in humans, the albino phenotype masks the phenotypes of other scale-color genes. There is no difference in appearance of albino drakes carrying any combination of alleles for shiny, gray, or deep color.

Connecting genes, cells, and proteins


Students begin their adventure in Mission Control, where they are greeted by Professor Hatch and Dr. Weaver, the leaders of the Drake Breeder's Guild. Their country is under attack and dragons are in danger of going extinct. …

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