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An evolving digital course introduces students to biology and evolution

Researchers have improved an introductory biology class to make it more accessible for students not majoring in life sciences. The course, "Integrative Biology: From DNA to Populations," features Avida-ED, a digital evolution software program that allows populations of digital organisms, or Avidians, to undergo actual, not simulated, evolutionary change. Previous courses that taught evolutionary concepts often involved evolution found in the fossil record or similarities in DNA sequences, anatomical structures and embryos. Because Avidians evolve extremely quickly, students can observe, record and experiment upon evolutionary change. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education reform stresses the importance of having a solid foundation of science fundamentals and the development of science and engineering practices. To address this concern, the research team created a new, semester-long course with Avida-ED at its core. With the help of Avida-ED, students can design their own experiments to see how mutation rates affect evolutionary outcomes. They also can tackle lofty topics and compare the benefits of natural selection, changes driven primarily by reproductive success, to genetic drift, changes that are the result of chance. Students who have taken the course have already shown an increased capacity in understanding evolution-influenced topics, such as antibiotic resistance and how bacteria are evolving to become multidrug resistant.

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