BEACON Researchers at Work: Teaching Kids about Evolution

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by University of Washington postdoc Heather Goldsby.

Heather GoldsbyInitially, I was planning on chatting with all of you about my actual research into studying division of labor using digital organisms. I’m fascinated by the questions and our exciting results. However, as I was sitting to write this post, I realized I really wanted to tell you about my recent outreach activities.

As scientists, we’re familiar with the sobering realities  — many kids don’t understand evolution, many kids think science is memorizing facts, many kids think computers are for geeks, many kids think scientists and, especially computer scientists, are all men. Nothing could be further from the truth (except for maybe the last one… but we should really work to change that), but how can we convince the average kid of that? Many of them have lost interest in science and computers long before freshman year when we have a chance to talk with them.

Think back, when did you become interested in science or computer science? For me, it was in high school. I went to a small high school and took a computer science class when I ran out of history classes to take, and my deplorable lack of musical talent made band or choir less than appealing. I immediately became addicted to the joys of problem solving with computers, and when the time came, enrolled in computer science as a college major. My interest in science arose much, much later when I learned science was about discovery, not just the names of rocks. I wish I would have discovered both at an earlier age.

Researcher with kids and laptopTo expose kids to the wonders of science and computers, we are partnering with teachers to bring an “evolution in action” program to elementary school and middle school kids. The program is simple. We spend the first few minutes discussing how computers are everywhere — in their (or their parents’) phones, gaming systems, household electronics — and are used for everything from school work to angry birds. The focus is on kids realizing that computers are extremely integrated into their lives and are used for more than geeky things. Next, we chat about how computers can be used to address some of the challenges that arise in studying evolution. Drawing upon the motivation for my own work, we talk about the tremendous amount of time it can take to watch evolution in the wild and how evolution in a computer works far more rapidly.  We also discuss how evolution produces animals that are more fit for their environment. We use examples the kids are familiar with (e.g., cheetahs, monkeys, etc.) to help them understand.

Abstract image

Figure 1: Ancestor image to evolve in Picbreeder

For the rest of the time, we split the kids into small groups where they work with a scientist to evolve either pictures (using or 3D objects (using I’ll describe the basic process using a picbreeder example, although endlessforms is similar. First, the group selects an ancestor picture to evolve (for example, Figure 1).  A panel of pictures appears. From this panel, the kids collectively select one or more parents for the next generation. Clicking the ‘evolve’ button produces the next generation. As part of this process, they can change the mutation rate from small to large and observe how similar or different the pictures are to their parents. The scientist working with the group uses this process to explain evolutionary concepts such as mutation, recombination, and selection. Because the kids themselves are interacting with the process by selecting the parents, the mutation rate, and letting things evolve, they gain a more intuitive feel for how evolution works. Some future twists we are adding to this process is having all the groups start with the same picture and then at the end comparing final products to see what selection under divergent environments (different groups) might look like.

Researcher with kids looking at laptopThus far, we’ve worked with first graders and third graders as part of a yearly event where students can sign up to visit different labs on campus. Some of the surprising things for us were: (1) The students are incredibly smart! During the discussion portion of the event, first graders have explained to us what predators and prey are. One student also informed us that the ancestor of a whale was a  land mammal that looked something like a hippo. (2) The kids have had tons of fun. Both years we’ve done this event our participants have groaned when they had to leave and have asked their sponsors if they could stay longer. Apparently, evolution in action won them over. (3) We, the volunteers, have enjoyed the event nearly as much as the students. There is something incredibly refreshing about sharing the wonders of science and computers with such a young audience.

In the upcoming weeks, we are expanding our outreach program to go visit the local schools working with 4th graders and 6th graders. This expansion lets us reach more kids close to the ages where they lose interest in science and computer science.

Next year, we hope to expand the program to include two additional sessions that target different aspects of the BEACON mission. Specifically, we’d like to expand our outreach to have three parts, where the first part is dedicated to traditional science, the second part is computer science used to address questions in science (the evolving pictures part I just described), and the third is using evolutionary computation to address engineering challenges, such as robots. I’m always looking for volunteers and would love to be able to share this program with other BEACON representatives who are interested in reaching kids in their own local area!

For more information, you can contact Heather at goldsby at uw dot edu.

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