PLAN 77: Article
Teaching Biology With Technology

A $2M Grant from the National Science Foundation

Eric Klopfer, Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has received a grant of $2M from the National Science Foundation for a four-year collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania to improve the teaching of biology at the high school level. His
colleague at Penn is Susan Yoon, a former MIT postdoc, in the Graduate School of Education.

The grant funds the development of an introductory biology unit using computer simulations as a way for students to build their understanding of topics ranging from the origins of life to molecular biology, ecology and evolution. The material will be presented from the perspective of complex systems, helping students understand how the rules that govern individual units in a system scale up to system behavior, and how they reflect such basic principles as randomness and equilibrium.

Each of the topics will entail simulation-based activities to fit with both the biology content and the systems principles. In a simulation of evolution, for instance, a student might see rabbits on the screen, each governed by certain rules regarding their characteristics – color, metabolism, speed, what they need to eat. By tweaking the simulation, s/he can see what happens to the rabbit population over time – what happens when it‘s hot, when it’s cold, when there’s a lot of food or little – and witness which rabbits thrive and which fail under those various circumstances.

Students will not only be using pre-built simulations, but also creating their own. When building their own simulations, students may also create a game – challenging the user to design a landscape to support the largest number of rabbits, for instance – a task that would require the user to understand the characteristics of the rabbits in this virtual world.

The intention is for students to learn about the content area while at the same time picking up design and programming skills and exercising their creativity, as well as learning how simulations are used in scientific research. Ultimately the aim is to explore the use of technology in teaching and learning to improve how any subject might be taught.

Begun in 1995, the Rita P. and Joseph B. Scheller Teacher Education Program conducts groundbreaking research into new technologies that are blurring the line between learning and fun. The program was established in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning to take advantage of synergies with that department's work with communities and community organizations; the program also resonates with research on learning and cognition in the department's sister division, the Media Lab, where the program is physically housed.

The program’s research has shown that students are deeply engaged in learning through the creation and use of computer-based simulations and games and that they appear to be engaged in a qualitatively different form of reasoning than in other activities. And since these games are now designed to be played both in and out of school, they have the potential to become the literal links between the world of school and the world of life, making both more fun and productive.

The new biology project is designed as a series of activities to be brought into the standard high school biology curriculum. It does not add time to the curriculum, but rather replaces some of the existing activities while maintaining connections to the backbone of the standard curriculum. In order to ease its integration into schools, and enhance scalability, the simulation activities will be facilitated by a new web-based version of StarLogo TNG, a modeling tool that does not require advanced mathematics or programming skills.

The research will be conducted in collaboration with teachers at four schools in the Boston area. The first two years of the study will be spent developing the software and conducting some pilot studies; the majority of the classroom work will be done in the third and fourth years. The participating schools and teachers will work with the teams from MIT and Penn to develop the units and will help develop materials for work with other teachers and schools.

In the end, the researchers aim to create a high school biology sequence that builds in increasing scales to deepen student understanding. Dissemination strategies include conferences, a newsletter, community activities, active dissemination and academic presentations. For more information, contact Eric Klopfer at klopfer@mit.edu.