Science Prizes Awarded to Educational Simulations that Explore the Puzzles of Biology

Two innovative computer simulations that help undergraduates explore mysteries in molecular biology—from genetic disease to flower color—have received the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Education.

The award-winning simulation called CaseIt! was designed by Mark Bergland of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and colleagues. The online educational module allows students to role-play their way through case studies such as tracing the source of an HIV infection.

In the second winning course, Brian White of the University of Massachusetts developed a virtual world called Aipotu that helps students manipulate genetic processes at speeds much faster than in a real-life lab.

Science’s IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes essays by recipients of the award, which explain the winning projects. The essays about Case It! and Aipotu were published on 27 July.

“We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”

Case Studies Come to Life

Bergland’s first love as a scientist was being out in nature, observing and tracking the behavior of wildlife, such as the foraging habits of yellow-headed blackbirds. In the late 1980s, however, new interests drew him from wildlife biology to molecular biology. He went from the great outdoors to a computer. He switched his focus from wildlife research to monitoring the educational benefits of a system of online case studies and analysis tools that allow students to explore DNA testing and its reverberations in lifelike applications.

He became so intrigued with the potential of that online educational system that he left his wildlife research behind, and helped to create CaseIt! with colleagues Karen Klyczek, Chi-Cheng Lin, Mary Lundeberg, Rafael Tosado-Acevedo, Arlin Toro, Dinitra White, and Bjorn Wolter.

“With Case It!, students are offered case studies with multiple scenarios, for example tracing a mutated gene back through a family tree,” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science, “enabling them to come at a problem from different biological, social, and ethical perspectives.”

What this means to students is that, instead of looking at concepts with little or no connection to everyday life, they are presented with case descriptions such as a sister who talks her brother into being tested for Huntington’s disease. He tests positive for the mutation that can cause the disease, but she is negative. In another case, a woman is diagnosed with HIV during the second trimester of her pregnancy, and it is unclear how she was infected.

In both cases, students read the descriptions and use Case It! to run the corresponding tests. As they gather information surrounding the cases, it becomes possible for them to role-play the people being tested, their family members, the health care providers, lab technicians, and researchers.

“They literally become the people in the case, and they learn more about molecular biology,” Bergland said. “They have to look up the answers and respond. They learn things on their own.

“It gives students a sense of responsibility.”

Case It! has been used in such far-flung places as Zimbabwe, where it assisted in HIV education, established many interesting cross-cultural connections between Zimbabweans and Americans, and further drove home the relevance of molecular biology in the world. Bergland hopes to keep sharing it with teachers everywhere, pointing out the software is downloadable for free. Although the workshops he and his colleagues conduct seem to be the most effective way to introduce educators to the system, the Case It! Web site contains video tutorials.

The World of Aipotu

In the computer-simulated world of Aipotu (“Utopia” spelled backwards), students apply the tools of genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and evolution to develop an understanding of the formation of color in a flower.

Showing the connections between genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and evolution is White’s primary objective, and he said using Aipotu, versus a real-life lab setting, enables it. The mechanisms represented in the Aipotu world—phenotype determination, color formation, protein folding, and engineering a pure-breeding organism, for example—would take years to experience in an actual lab. With Aipotu, students not only get to experience the processes and their interaction, but they find answers on their own about how the processes work.

“Aipotu software will never tell students the answer, but rather it acts as a tool that students learn to utilize in order to discover the answer,” McCartney said. “Perhaps most importantly, students are given freedom to explore their misconceptions of biology, especially with regard to evolutionary concepts.”

Such common misconceptions include the ideas that selection causes beneficial mutations, mutations are always deleterious, and mutations cannot create new features.

But it’s not only White’s students who can take advantage of Aipotu. Downloadable for free, it is available to anyone who would like to use it.

“What I learned from science was if you find something good, you give it away and let someone else use it,” White said. Teachers in general don’t ever seem to have extra money for their classrooms, he added, and the use of the software is simply easier for them if there are no license restrictions.

Bergland also is enthusiastic about the opportunities represented by CaseIt! and other online simulations. “Students who might otherwise read about these techniques in often outdated textbooks have an open-ended software tool that they can download,” he said. “This gives students all over the world a way to learn about molecular biology that’s really engaging.”


Read the essay, “Engaging Students in Molecular Biology via Case-Based Learning,” by Mark Bergland et al.

Read the essay, “Aipotu: Simulation from Nucleotides to Populations and Back Again,” by Brian White.

Learn more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Education.