Dragons Rule After School: Helping Students Prepare for Biotech Careers

Geniverse is a digital game where high school biology students put genetics knowledge into action as they breed virtual dragons. Now we’re sending our dragons into afterschool programs, specifically those that support underserved middle school youth, with the goal of connecting the students with local biotechnology professionals to strengthen their awareness of STEM careers.

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The GeniConnect project, funded by the National Science Foundation, will couple a “next-generation” version of the Geniverse game with coaching from biotechnology industry professionals, hands-on activities and experiments, and visits to local labs to introduce participants to careers in the burgeoning field of biotechnology. Since the research and treatment of human disease is at the core of much of the biotechnology industry, students will encounter dragons with disorders in Geniverse and learn about their real-world parallels and research leading to treatments. Helping students better understand how issues they encounter in their daily lives—for example, the current prevalence of genetic diseases such as diabetes—are being addressed through science is at the core of making science relevant and helping students envision themselves as future scientists.

Students enter a virtual lab in Geniverse to solve genetics problems and visit real scientists in their laboratories..
Figure 1. Students enter a virtual lab in Geniverse to solve genetics problems and visit real scientists in their laboratories.

Classical genetics focuses on the correlation between genes and specific traits, skipping over the means or mechanisms by which genes exert their influence over traits. The next generation of Geniverse reveals the key role that proteins play in the manifestation of genetic traits. Students will zoom into a cell to help the proteins that link genes to traits do their jobs. New game mechanics are being designed in partnership with the award-winning FableVision Studios to bring proteins to the fore, while engaging a younger audience. We will also include Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts (especially scale, structure and function, and cause and effect), and science and engineering practices (such as asking questions, using models, conducting investigations, and analyzing data) for middle school students. Although the focus is on afterschool and informal learning, Geniverse activities will help students build understanding toward the MS-LS1-1 and MS-LS3-1 performance expectations.

Evidence-centered Design

To weave the varied elements of the GeniConnect project into a unified program, we are employing Evidence-centered Design (ECD) as a guiding framework to develop each key project area. While ECD was originally conceptualized for assessment design, it can also be applied effectively to program design and evaluation.1 ECD provides a structure for the clear identification and unpacking of targeted outcomes, specifies the experiences needed to achieve those outcomes, and identifies what constitutes evidence for evaluating students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). An ECD-based design has two essential models at its core, a student model and an evidence model. The student model defines the variables related to students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities that we hope to elicit with GeniConnect. The evidence model consists of a selection of specific tasks that can elicit behaviors providing evidence of students’ KSAs, and includes detailed instructions for measuring the KSAs targeted by the student model.

Our student model defines targeted levels of KSAs using a genetics learning progression defined by an expert team of genetics education researchers.2,3 We prioritized three concepts (transmission genetics, genes as instructions, and the relationship between a protein’s structure and its function) that students will encounter through Geniverse game play and hands-on activities. Through discussion and guided activities, students will relate these concepts to real-world diseases and make connections between the laboratory research their game coaches are conducting and the research and experiments they are doing with dragons within the Geniverse virtual labs (Figure 1).

Using ECD, we have also outlined specific items to measure students’ motivation towards studying genetics and future careers in science. These items include how students see genetics as relevant to the real world, their confidence in their ability to understand and apply genetics knowledge, and their intent to pursue additional learning opportunities in science (Table 1).

Our evidence model focuses on detecting support for varying levels of understanding and motivation. We are developing pre- and post-assessments to measure student content understanding and motivation before and after the eight-week program of activities. In the spring of 2016, we piloted the pre-assessment protocol with a representative sample of six students from our inner-city afterschool partner, interviewing them about their prior knowledge of genetics terms and their interest in science-related careers. For example, while the term “genetics” was unfamiliar, students recognized “genes” and “DNA” and knew that they are involved in the inheritance of traits from biological parents. When they were probed about their interest and motivation in science and genetics, most students had difficulty recognizing value in learning about genetics for themselves, but were better able to talk about the value to others, suggesting that we should prioritize the value of genetics to society. We tested a set of 16 content understanding items and 15 motivation items, and have identified the six most appropriate items in each category for further development.

Breeding engagement and STEM career awareness

Through exciting game-like activities, relevant hands-on science, coaching from industry professionals, and field trips to local labs, we hope to interest more youth in studying science and, eventually, successful careers in the growing arena of biotechnology. We are counting on our Geniverse dragons to breed more interest in science and STEM career awareness in middle school students.

Evidence-Centered Design Table
Table 1. A small section of our Evidence-centered Design table illustrating one content area and one motivation outcome. (Click table to enlarge.)

1 Mislevy, R. J., Almond, R. G., & Lukas, J. F. (2003). A brief introduction to Evidence-centered Design. ETS Research Report Series, 2003(1), 1-29.

2 Duncan, R. G., Rogat, A. D., & Yarden, A. (2009). A learning progression for deepening students’ understandings of modern genetics across the 5th–10th grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46, 655–674.

3 Todd, A. N. (2013). The molecular genetics learning progressions: Revisions and refinements based on empirical testing in three 10th grade classrooms (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Wright State University CORE Scholar.

Kiley McElroy-Brown ( is a research associate/project manager.
Trudi Lord ( is a project manager.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DRL-1513086. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.