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Critique of Biology Labs On-Line as Open Ended Inquiry

Susan Dorfman's picture

I chose to use a Biology Labs On-Line activtiy because I have used The Fly Lab in the past and the company claims that these virtual labs are inquiry based. Initially, the Fly Lab seemed exciting in that it was a virtual lab that permitted an investigation into the genetics of the Drosophila melanogaster without using the flies and in a time frame possible with our schedule. After several years, I noticed thet students were easily frustrated by the technical difficulties of doing a lab online and became bored with the tediousness of the activity. I decided to investigate another online lab, Population Genetics, according to the criteria we set in this Institute for open-ended inquiry exercises.

In this lab, studnts deal with a stand of trees that supports three different phenotypes of moths; brown, black, and white; three different types of trees; and birds that prey on the moths. The moths use cryptic coloration as a defence against predation by the birds. Thus, the relative percentages of the three types of trees ultimately determines moth survival. Each stand of trees has a carrying capacity of 3000 moths. As with the other Biology Labs On-Line activities, Pop Gen allows students to change the inputs. Students can change:

  • # of trees per stand
  • migration rate
  • mating pattern by changing % of assortative versus dissassortative mating
  • disaster frrequency 

 Students can play with these changes and generate results by:

  • Pie charts for % of phenotypes at each generation
  • Line graft to show allele frequency over time
  • Line graft for heterozygosity
  • Line graft for population size over time
  • Bar graft for allele distribution at each generaqtion
  • Summary of simulation parameters


Critique of this lesson according to the criteria set in Institute

  • Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions. At the AP level, the seniors taking the course should be able to handle an occasional virtual lab. The tool, a computer, is certainly one with which they are familiar. They have studied Hardy Weinberg and know the parameters under which the H-W equation holds. I don’t know how interesting moths are to these students; however, it is a common example in texts for an example of evolution.
  • Prepare scaffolding and guideline appropriate for the sophistication of the students level. More scaffolding for younger students, less or none for older students. There is minimal at-the-moment support for this activity. The web site has directions and the students have already studied the background material.
  • Encourage students to recognize and share their current understandings of these sorts of materials, and to notice differences in understandings. Sitting at the computer and working at their own pace does not allow for formal sharing. I do notice that in the case of The Fly Lab, students start socializing as they become bored with the lab. They find this one more interesting.
  • Encourage students to make new observations that are surprising to at least some of them. There are many opportunities for the students to make new observation as they manipulate the parameters.
  • Encourage students to figure out why they are surprised (ie what understanding they had that wouldn't have let them to expect the observation they have made), and what new understandings (stories) would account for previous understandings as well as the new observations. Again, the results generated by their manipulation of the parameters will encourage questions about results that were not expected.
  • Encourage students to make explicit to themselves and others their new understandings and the reasons for them, and to recognize and reflect on differences among them. The activity does not allow for this, but the teacher could set aside classroom time for a discussion of their findings.
  • Enourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories. This activity is rich in opportunities for new observations.
  • Repeat Many, many times


Still I worry that the virtual lab is too remote even for this current generation of gamers.


Joyce offered some suggestions to improve this activity that led me to think of other ways to use the online lab.

  • Instead of having students work independently, have each student sit at their own computer but decide together what will be the first set of changes to the parameters of the activity. This small change would encourage the students to discuss the results. For each round of changes, the students could work together on decisions and evaluation of results. Such an approach would generate more sharing and more questions that would benefit the group as a whole.
  • Joyce suggested bringing in moths in a small ecosystem to create a relationship between the students and the moth. This experience might heighten their interest.