Over the past ten or twenty years, the news media has become saturated with stories about genetics. But do you really understand how genes interact? A new genetics simulation being developed at Ohio State can help.
The simulation begins with a series of cartoon faces from which the user can choose to populate the gene pool for the next generation. (The term “parents” is used, but more than two can be selected.) This process can be repeated several times to create successive generations of cartoon faces.
Over 50 “genes” are incorporated into the faces (affecting everything from the dimensions of the head and other features to how asymmetrical the face is and whether the eyes follow your mouse or not) and the genes of the “parents” interact to produce the subsequent generation. You can also adjust the amount of mutation, which leads to a wider (or narrower) variety of offspring.
Another interesting feature is the ability to view genotypes. This allows you to view a graph under each offspring representing which genes come from which parent. You can also choose two faces and drag them to the Gene Exam Room to view to what degree each gene is represented in each face. This also allows you to see the effect of each individual gene. You can even increase or decrease the representation of each gene to see how it changes each face.
What can you (or your students) do with this simulation? Imagine the faces are puppies and you want to develop a new breed that is cute (or whatever other trait you’re interested in.) This simulation clearly demonstrates how breeders (of animals, plants, etc.) select for certain traits and refine them over generations.
Or imagine the choices you make in the simulation are not choices, but represent the effects of the environment. For example, say the Sun grows dim giving people with big eyes that can see in low light an advantage over people with small eyes. This advantage results in a higher percentage of offspring surviving and a wider representation in the gene pool. What effect would this have after several generations?
Think of how much richer students’ discussions of designer pets and natural disasters will be after they have “experienced” the process instead of just reading about it. In addition to genetics, this simulation can also stimulate interest in probability (how likely are offspring to have certain characteristics), design (ideas behind evolutionary design were the impetus for the interface), as well as all of the social issues behind decisions we are now able to make regarding genetics.
In terms of ESL teaching, I think giving students something interesting to do and then having them talk or write about it is a great way to get them to practice English. This genetics simulation is simple but interesting enough that it could generate lots of interesting ideas for students to talk about.