Dragons Go Wild

By Trudi Lord and Frieda Reichsman

"This software program fully supports my inquiry-based style of teaching and the students have benefited tremendously from the experience. As they are playing, they are making discoveries that they can then connect to the unit’s concepts and skills."

"We started today and the kids were glued to the screen trying to work through it. It was awesome! I love how it allows students to work at their own pace and receive feedback throughout. Geniverse is the definition of differentiated learning."

GeniverseTraditional genetics experiments are difficult to do in schools. To demonstrate real-world genetics in action, teachers must have the time and space to maintain or grow stocks of model organisms (e.g., fruit flies or Fast Plants). Breeding experiments with these specimens can take weeks or more and may not result in usable data. Due to time and resource limitations, multi-generational experiments, which are the hallmark of genetic science, are nearly impossible to complete.

Compare that to a computer simulation, based on real genes, that immerses students in a narrative adventure. Last year, 23 teachers in 18 New England schools used Geniverse, our genetics software that models inheritance patterns of dragons, and their model species drakes, to teach genetics to their high school biology students. By programming the mechanisms that govern real-world genetics into a virtual environment, we circumvent traditional classroom obstacles of time and space and provide a means for experimentation that closely mimics real-world genetics.

Students begin their adventure by choosing an avatar and befriending a sick dragon. Over time, as they explore Mendelian and non-Mendelian traits, meiosis and events at the molecular level, students uncover clues about an underlying genetic disease. Using interactive models to do experiments, students generate realistic data and win star ratings for efficient experimentation. Geniverse provides an engaging environment where students can develop and refine their skills in multiple scientific practices highlighted in the Next Generation Science Standards: using models, conducting investigations, analyzing data, constructing explanations and arguing from evidence.

Students can progress through four levels of the "Drake Breeder's Guild" with 32 unique challenges, each with a specific objective that supports experimentation. There are multiple pathways for students to achieve each objective; all involve manipulating alleles, breeding strategies or learning different patterns of inheritance. When students have reached the Master level, they have learned all they need to know to solve the mystery of the dragon’s disease and find a cure.

Opening the Geniverse gates

Now that our National Science Foundation-funded research is coming to an end (we are currently crunching numbers and will report results soon—stay tuned), we have released our dragons and set Geniverse loose in the world for all to use. At first, we worried if our servers could handle the large demand, or maybe they would just go entirely unused. But in the eight months since we opened up Geniverse to use by anyone, hundreds of teachers and over 10,000 students across the globe have begun their journey with drake genetics.

Visits to Geniverse are increasing steadily.
Visits to Geniverse have increased steadily since our public launch in September 2013. The majority are from the U.S., but we have also had visitors from New Zealand, Italy, Brazil and Norway.

How did we reach so many users? Aside from the obvious answer that dragons with wings roam far and wide (the genotypes WW or wW produce wings!), we also got the word out through our email newsletter, social media, conferences, website and, of course, our @Concord magazine. The initial message went out to high school biology teachers, but we found that middle school teachers were also interested in using Geniverse. We’re hoping to make modifications specific to this grade band in future versions of the software.

Beautifully designed graphics by the Fablevision Media and Interactive Development Studio illustrate the world of Geniverse.

Scarlett visits the village elder.
Scarlett, the Geniverse female avatar, visits the village elder and learns that dragon genetics are studied at the remote Drake Breeder’s Guild.

Scarlett and Arrow the dragon depart from home.
Scarlett and Arrow the dragon depart from home on the long and arduous journey to the Guild.

Students track their own progress through the Guild and navigate to each Geniverse Lab activity through the Case Log.
Students track their own progress through the Guild and navigate to each Geniverse Lab activity through the Case Log.

Get started with Geniversity

Teacher professional development was an important piece of our research study. Using feedback from teachers and students over the past four years, we have refined our teacher support materials, including teacher guides and lesson plans as well as student organizers. These resources are all available on Geniversity, our teacher support website. In addition, Geniversity offers video screencasts to help teachers at every phase of their Geniverse experience, from beginning the registration process to breeding their first drake to viewing the results of the final assessment. Geniversity also contains frequently asked questions and discussion forums designed to foster collaboration between teachers, a first attempt to build a larger community of Geniverse teachers.

Try the three-lesson Geniverse Primer to learn the software and story—and some dragon genetics, too, including connections between genotype, phenotype, meiosis and fertilization. Or go on the full journey to solve the mystery of the ailing dragon, complete all the challenges and move from the Training level to Apprentice, Journeyman and ultimately Master. You’ll be a dragon’s best friend.


Trudi Lord (tlord@concord.org) is the Geniverse project manager.
Frieda Reichsman (freichsman@concord.org) directs the Geniverse project.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DRL-0733264. 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.

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