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What is EvoLab?

EvoLab is a suite of NetLogo models and supporting materials designed to facilitate inquiry and discovery, teaching and learning, and research of concepts and phenomena related to evolution, adaptation, and natural and artificial selection. 

These models and materials are in continuous development at the Center for Connected Learning (CCL).  The EvoLab project began its work in 1997 starting with a set of models and activites developed for use in 5-16 classrooms. Early topics included genetic drift, evolution of camouflage, and evolution of social behavior. These materials were supplemented with models of predator prey dynamics and population biology and were run as curricular units in middle school. high school and university biology classes. The EvoLab development team has continued to develop new models models on a variety of evolution concepts (e.g., sexual selection and the Baldwin effect.  Some of the newer models use HubNet technology to enable multiple users to interact with each other in a "particpatory simulation". In these participatory simulations, students or museum visitors "become" (take on the role of) elements of an evolutionary system. In so doing, they recreate the complex, parallel, competitive, and cooperative interactions that affect the adaptation of life and experience them from a first hand point of view.

In the twentieth century and at the start of the twenty-first, "no scientific theory has been more difficult for people to accept than biological evolution by natural selection. It goes against some people's strongly held beliefs about when and how the world and the living things in it were created. It hints that human beings had lesser creatures as ancestors, and it flies in the face of what people can plainly see--namely that generation after generation, life forms don't change; roses stay roses, worms stay worms. New traits arising by chance alone is a strange idea, unsatisfying to many and offensive to some. And its broad applicability is not appreciated by students, most of whom know little of the vast amount of biological knowledge that evolution by natural selection attempts to explain" (from Benchmarks for Science Literacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science).

It is an unfortunate fact that as the pace of discoveries in biotechnology and the biological sciences continues to accelerate, many of our citizens are not scientifically literate in the fundamental conceptual framework of evolution.  Policy decisions and national debates on topics that affect the health of individuals, the diversity of ecosystems, the priorities of genetic and disease research, the education of our children, and the funding climate of our nation are made without a shared scientific literacy in this area. 

Part of the difficulty of understanding the conceptual framework of evolution comes from misunderstanding the distinction between evolution and natural selection.  Evolution is the name we have given to the well-substantiated phenomenon of historical changes in life forms; natural selection is the proposed mechanism for these changes.  Only familiarity with evidence for evolution in the natural world can provide an informed basis for judging different explanations of the mechanisms that drive evolution.  NetLogo models can offer benefits in formal and informal education, policy making, and research by helping model users gain deeper understanding of both the patterns that emerge from the evidence in the natural world and the mechanisms that drive these emergent patterns .

A prerequisite to understanding natural selection is for learners to understand the important distinction between the selection of an individual with a certain trait and the subsequent change in frequencies of that trait within a population. NetLogo models are also particularly strong at helping learners grasp this distinction by providing opportunities for them to reflect on individual-versus-population dynamics in other contexts, particularly with relation to probability and the distribution of genotypes and traits.

Our goal with EvoLab is to create a suite of agent-based models in NetLogo that encourage the exploration, alteration, inspection, and spinning-off of related models (a common feature to every NetLogo model).  This suite of "transparent” models will form a set of inter-related laboratories for the student, teacher, museumgoer, and researcher to make important discoveries and gain deeper understanding of natural selection and evolution.

We here at the Center for Connected Learning (CCL) are committed to doing our part to ensure that compelling, accurate, and educationally valuable evolution-based models and supporting instructional materials are freely and widely available to the public.  We encourage you to explore these pages and get a better sense of how we are working to accomplish this goal.