About the game:
Nova’s Evolution Lab is an online game where students learn about evolution in two parts: through the “Build a Tree” interactive phylogenetic tree and the “Deep Tree” database of over 70,000 species and their evolutionary history.
How it works:
Students complete six missions in the “Build a Tree” game, each with its own introductory video and challenges within the mission. They’ll use both physical traits and DNA nucleotides (the four nitrogenous bases, Thymine, Cytosine, Adenine, and Guanine) to build a phylogenetic tree (a branching diagram showing evolutionary relationships) for related species, seeing how they diverge and what they have in common. For example, a gecko, fly agaric (fungus), and a palm tree all have cells with nuclei, but a gecko and fly agaric are both heterotrophic (making them more closely related) while a palm tree is a photosynthetic autotroph.
This is accomplished through dragging and dropping: Students first drag the species into the middle of the screen, arranging them however they like. This builds the tree. They can click a magnifying glass to learn more about each species, such as common traits and other information, and even read an overall comparison.
Next, students place traits (listed to the left) onto different nodes of the tree, signifying divergence. A bubble then travels up from the bottom of the tree, passing through the nodes and arriving at the top, filling empty circles above each species. Students must arrange and group the species so that the traits are shared accurately and all the circles fill up correctly.
The interface is clean and easy to use and understand, and the interactivity of building a tree is essentially a puzzle students must figure out. It figures focus, attention, and problem-solving skills and asks a multiple choice question after the challenge is complete. This is important in helping students analyze the tree they built.
After a few missions, the content began to feel a bit repetitive in terms of how you build a tree, but the game does a good job of adding a little variety to keep students thinking. It might give students more complicated trees (with more species) to build, combine physical traits and DNA together, or ask questions that require deeper reading of the species information presented through the magnifying glass. The challenge level always felt like it required my attention and thought.
Classcraft’s Shawn Young had a very different experience. He was able to solve the challenges by counting the dots over each species and looking at the images of the animals/plants. By doing this, he was able to avoid using the magnifying glass altogether and progress through the game more quickly. You may find a few savvy students will have this experience.
One aspect of the game that could have been stressed more is why evolution matters to each of us. While “Build a Tree” excels at showing how species are related through evolution, you may want to reflect on lessons with your students to relate it back to our lives today. The final mission, “You Evolved, Too,” touches on this when it shows the evolutionary path of diseases such as HIV, for instance.
In the classroom:
The “Build a Tree” game (which is free) requires about 1.5 hours of class time. Students can work individually or in pairs, since building the phylogenetic trees demands problem-solving. Additional time (about 2.5 hours) can be spent on worksheets (available for download in the Evolution Lab Guide for Educators) and video quizzes. The game is suited for grades 6-12.
The “Deep Tree,” however, offers considerable more learning opportunities. This section provides a complete phylogenetic tree of over 70,000 species so that students can compare a lemur to a … banana, for instance, or any other species connection they’re interested in learning more about. A good post-game project, once students complete the “Build a Tree” missions, would be to have students choose two species to “relate” and present their findings on their common ancestry and how and when they diverged. There’s a nice video tutorial that shows how to operate the database.
While I found the puzzle-like nature of the game engaging, the repetition did diminish my interest level somewhat as I progressed to later segments. Some students may progress more quickly than others or find the experience less rewarding.
In this case, you could treat the “Build a Tree” as practice exercises and the “Deep Tree” as an opportunity for more creative, student-led investment.