Simulating natural selection through performance
Rebecca M. Price Ph.D. (Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences)
Discussing evolution can create a tense classroom environment in which both proponents of evolution and creationists react defensively. Using a new mode of instruction can refocus the timbre of the classroom toward learning. In this exercise, students simulate natural selection through a performance, and students become physically, as well as mentally, engaged in thinking about evolutionary concepts. The simulation begins when all but two students distribute themselves throughout a room and strike a pose; they are the “prey.” The remaining students are “predators” who also tabulate the way frequencies of traits change. The predators and recorders choose a criterion in secret for selecting prey. Every time a predator touches a prey, that prey “dies.” Then, the prey population reproduces. In this model, the population size remains the same, and survivors reproduce by cloning just before they die. The students who represented prey that were eaten re-enter the population, copying any of the surviving poses. Round 2 begins, and the predators have another ten seconds to hunt. Round 3 follows exactly like Round 2, etc. Three rounds are usually sufficient to demonstrate selection. We conclude with in-class discussion and homework that reinforces understanding of the concepts. I then ask students to design their own performances to model how migration, mutation or genetic drift change allele frequencies in populations. Preliminary evidence suggests that the exercise helps students correct many misconceptions about the process of natural selection.