Curriculum Guide

Main Page, Curriculum Guide

  1. Overview of the Guide
  2. Description of the Activities
  3. PreActivities Discussion
  4. The Altruism Set
  5. The Cooperation Set

1. Overview of the Guide

This Guide offers 1) a general description of the Altruism and Cooperation models developed at the EACH project, 2) a proposed structure for presenting the models, and 3) a sample curriculum guide that encapsulates the approach that we have adopted in past sessions with students. The sessions follow the general format of beginning with a preactivites discussion, in which we get a feel for the students' background in evolutionary theory and their expectations for interacting with the models, then having the students interact with the Altruism set (including discussion periods), and finally having them interact with the Cooperation set (also with discussion periods).

2. Description of the Activities

The EACH project models are designed to expose students of evolution to the complex dynamics of evolutionary systems. In particular, these models emphasize that the evolution of altruism and cooperation is possible when the interaction of environmental conditions (such as harshness or physical barriers) and social factors (such as grouping) are taken into account. The primary goal of the EACH models is to address students’ conceptions of fitness, and to give them a hands-on approach to exploring selection at the gene-level, individual-level, and group-level. Through exploring these multiple levels of fitness students are encouraged to move beyond the notion of the "survival of the fittest" as the dominance of a strong individual, and to consider fitness as an emergent phenomenon, existing at different levels, and contingent upon many environmental and social factors.

The EACH project is structured around two sets of seed models that encourage students to predict the outcome of certain evolutionary scenarios. Each set has two models. The first model in each set is designed to allow the students to explore the structure of the model and to expose their basic intuitions about what the results should be. This model has what we will call the ‘expected’ result, and thus allows the students to integrate their intuitions with their expectations for the model. By developing this sort of familiarity with the first model, students feel comfortable trying to anticipate the results of the model, and provide reasons why these results should be the case.

The second model in each set introduces new environmental and/or social parameters that affect the group-level dynamics of the populations of selfish and altruistic agents. These changes allow for the surprising consequence that altruistic and/or cooperative behavior is more fit. The movement from the first to the second model within each set is intended to demonstrate how the introduction of environmental and social considerations into population dynamics can dramatically change how we understand individual, group, and gene-level fitness. What this curriculum emphasizes is the movement between these perspectives, and how the intuitive assumption of thinking about fitness as individual strength can generate misleading inferences about the survivability of group-level traits such as cooperation and altruism.

There are two key assumptions made in this serial ordering of the models in each set. First, we assume that by allowing students to become familiar with the "unsurprising" reasoning involved in the first model of the set, they will engage in trying to explain why the model has the results that it does. Second, we assume that once students have articulated their intuitions about how the model works, when they see the outcome of the second model in the set, it places the challenge to their intuitions directly before them. They become aware of the assumptions they are making and the difficulties in their own intuitions about the system; thus the students are engaged in trying to figure out how they can think differently about the scenario in order to understand this ‘surprising’ outcome.

There are two sets of models in the basic EACH curriculum. The Altruism set and the Cooperation set. The sets are presented serially, so the Altruism set is worked through first (Altruism model 1 followed by Altruism model 2), and then the Cooperation set, in the same order. The basic idea is that students develop familiarity with the first Altruism model, and then find the striking result that in the second Altruism model altruism can survive under certain environmental and social conditions. This process is described in more detail below. The important point is that before and after each model in the set students are encouraged to discuss the parameters and conjecture about what will happen (before the model is run), or why what happened did happen (after the model is run). It is often helpful to allow them to run the model several times, and to play with the parameter space until they are comfortable with the basic behavior of the model.

After students have discussed the outcomes of the Altruism set, they are presented with the Cooperation set. Once the parameters are described to them, students quickly have a feel for what outcome to expect from the first Cooperation model. After seeing the first model’s results, the students are asked to put their learning to the test and devise a way to get the cooperators to survive. The final cooperation model presents one possible solution, but the same idea can be implemented in many ways, and we encourage hands-on model development as part of this final stage of the curriculum. Allowing students to introduce new physical elements, or extend the parameter space is an important way of getting them to think through their new ideas in a more concrete way. It is also important, as a matter of closure, to make sure that students understand the theoretical significance of whatever solution they ultimately implement.

A note on the serial ordering of the sets. The Altruism set is the more difficult conceptually than the Cooperation set — for it requires a richer descriptive understanding of how the parts of the model are interacting. However, by getting students familiar with they way that this model works, and allowing them to develop an intuitive feel for it, we find that they are well prepared to think critically about the Cooperation set. The Cooperation models are more embodied, and the concepts are much more intuitive to most users. Thus, after the students have had to think through the "biology" of the Altruism models, and the mechanisms that allow for the survival of altruism, they show remarkable insight into the problem presented by the second Cooperation model.

3. The PreActivities Discussion

  1. What is fitness?
  2. What do you think makes an agent more fit than another agent?
  3. Do you think that altruistic behavior can survive in competition for resources with selfish behaviors? Why?

4. The Altruism Set

Altruism Model 1 (Before)

Altruism Model 2 (Before)

Altruism Model 2 (After)

5. The Cooperation Set

Cooperation Model 1 (Before)

Cooperation Model 1 (After)

Cooperation Model 2 (Before)

Cooperation Model 2 (After)