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Virtual Biology Lab 2.0: improving and implementing an inquiry-based educational resource: 1525103

Principal Investigator: Thomas Jones
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Todd Emma, Anna Hiatt
Organization: East Tennessee State University

A growing body of evidence indicates that computer simulations can be particularly effective tools for developing a student’s conceptual understanding of STEM topics and for engaging students in problem solving. The significance of this project is that it will provide an open, interactive, and biologically realistic environment around which faculty can design their own curriculum and can adopt various vehicles for delivering it (e.g. interactive lecture examples and in-class experiments, pre/post lab exercises, or full simulation-based lab exercises). The model themes of Virtual Biology Lab (VBL) directly address four of the important components of biology undergraduate education as highlighted in Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: two of the core concepts, evolution and biological systems and two of the core competencies, the ability to apply the process of science and the ability to use modeling and simulation when gathering data and analyzing biological processes.

The VBL website, www.virtualbiologylab.org, developed under a previous NSF award currently hosts 20 simulation models of ‘classic’ experiments and concepts in ecology and evolutionary biology, all of which are free for use for educational purposes. The models promote inquiry by providing open environments in which students can manipulate parameters and observe the effects on simulated populations. The site averages over 2800 unique sessions per month, but existing models only run on PCs. This phase will expand accessibility to all web-platforms, and continue to provide free use of models. The developers will: 1) redevelop current and new models in HTML5 maintaining accessibility for the foreseeable future; 2) consult educators during model development maximizing their efficacy as learning tools; 3) robustly assess simulation models as learning tools; 4) create a professional website to host the models and facilitate a community of users; and, 5) raise awareness of the resource among biology faculty. The assessment of the learning experience will involve several hundred students from three institutions (a selective R1 university, a regional university, and a community college). The study will compare learning gains of students using the new and old interfaces. A matched pair design will be used to determine if a more modern game-like interface enhances, detracts from, or does not affect student learning. Answering this question is important because considerable time and effort in software development can be spent keeping up with the state of the art. In addition, this would add general data on the efficacy of simulation models as learning tools.

This project is funded jointly by the Directorate for Biological Sciences, Division of Biological Infrastructure and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Undergraduate Education in support of efforts to address the challenges posed in Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education: A Call to Action (http://visionandchange.org/files/2013/11/aaas-VISchange-web1113.pdf).

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