Toward a Better Understanding of Population Genetics: Pop!World-A Virtual, Inquiry-Based Tool for Teaching Population Genetics

By Poulin, Jessica; Ramamurthy, Bina et al. | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Toward a Better Understanding of Population Genetics: Pop!World-A Virtual, Inquiry-Based Tool for Teaching Population Genetics


Poulin, Jessica, Ramamurthy, Bina, Dittmar, Katharina, Journal of College Science Teaching


Population genetics is the field of biology that allows scientists (and students) to make predictions and trace the outcomes of evolutionary forces. As population genetics is fraught with models and equations, understanding and teaching the complexity of its concepts is challenging and requires a solid grasp of mathematics.

However, among many students, biology (and evolution) is still seen as a descriptive science that relies only in a minor way on quantitative methods. This problem is compounded by the fact that most incoming undergraduates are either ill-prepared for math (Fike & Fike, 2008; Planty et al., 2008) or have difficulty in transferring previously acquired math skills across disciplines (Wallace, 2009). Both factors invariably lead to a great deal of frustration for instructors and students alike. Often, this frustration translates to high attrition rates from the biological sciences, which also decreases the number of qualified students for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines (Wenner, Burn, & Baer, 2011).

In essence, there is an urgent need to address disparate levels of quantitative skills of incoming students (Lutz & Srogi, 2000, Wenner et al., 2011). As a first response, we have recently developed Pop!World as part of an National Science Foundation grant effort, concentrating on teaching the fundamental concepts of population genetics--the five assumptions and predictions of Hardy-Weinberg theory. One way to deal with teaching and learning complex, quantitatively oriented science is to provide students with the latitude to explore their own data sets in hands-on, practical experiments (Hofstein & Lunnetta, 2004; Lesh & Sriraman, 2009). However, population genetics is rarely suited to a traditional bench-lab environment, and large introductory courses limit resource and instructor availability. We have circumvented this problem by effectively demonstrating the topic through a visual exploration by the student (i.e., they make evolution happen), aided by high-fidelity computer simulation.

Survey results from our pilot implementations suggest that students of differing quantitative backgrounds find the tool helpful in general to understand population genetics. Students also report an increased interest in evolutionary biology after using Pop!World. Moreover, when compared with the overall test scores, students (of all backgrounds) do significantly better on the population genetics questions. Thus, we conclude we have made a significant step toward achieving our learning objectives for most students. Future steps linking concepts more directly to the math in the program are discussed.

Design concept

The large student population (~1,500 students, 48 lab sections with 24-28 students each) of our introductory biology course (BIO 200) has given us the motivation to develop course tools that can be deployed to large numbers of users simultaneously and at low cost, with low infrastructure needs. Pop!World was designed specifically with this population in mind, but also with the knowledge that most colleges and universities teach microevolution/population genetics to their freshman population, making this a good test case.

Using the program requires no special expertise in bioinformatics or computers from the side of the students or instructors. Because it concentrates on the fundamentals of population genetics (Hardy-Weinberg), it is easily integrated with multiple textbooks and curricula. Given a simple set of instructions, users are able to intuitively navigate and explore the program (Figure 1). The modules are made available through a cloud-deployed environment, giving everyone easy access to consistent computational power without regard to platform type or the need to upgrade software. This step also prevents issues associated with server outage, which could negatively impact the patience of participants, as well as the didactic flow of the course. …

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