Virtual Biology Lab 2.0: improving and implementing an inquiry-based educational resource

Project No.
PI Name
Thomas Jones
East Tennessee State University

Abstract 1

Virtual Biology Lab 2.0: improving and implementing an inquiry-based educational resource

Presentation Type
Thomas C. Jones, East Tennessee State University Anna Hiatt, East Tennessee State University Todd Emma, East Tennessee State University


Perhaps more than any other disciplines within biology, ecology and evolution are conceptual in nature and cannot be mastered by rote. Rather, students must have a strong working understanding of concepts to be able to apply them. Unfortunately, realistic ecological/evolutionary experiments would typically take much longer than a semester or academic year. As a result, the problem is that it is difficult to develop practical educational analogs for most ecological/evolutionary experiments in lab/classroom settings that foster an understanding of theory through empirical demonstrations. In the ムvirtual worldメ, students can quickly conduct experiments that would take years, or even decades, in the real world. By working with simulations, students are obliged to interact with the concepts being illustrated. They cannot be passive! Students learn the effects of different variables by ムtweakingメ them and observing the results. Furthermore, students will see that biological results are not neat and tidy like the graphs typically presented in textbooks. Rather, real biological results are messy, and trends in the data are revealed by statistical analyses.

The overall goal of the Virtual Biology Lab Project is to provide an interactive educational resource for use in undergraduate ecology and evolution curricula. To date, we have developed twenty models that simulate ムclassicメ experiments or illustrate complex phenomena in ecology and evolutionary biology. We continue to share this resource with the science education community with the commitment that all of the current and future models will be accessible to users free of charge for educational purposes.


A major challenge for technology-based resources is maintaining usability as computer operating systems and platforms change. Encouraged by our assessment of student engagement and learning gains, the rapidly increasing use of the resource, and positive feedback from faculty outside ETSU, we propose to fully implement the Virtual Biology Lab project. In this phase of the project, we will:
1) re-develop our models and develop new models in a cross-platform format to maximize their accessibility and technological ムshelf lifeメ, while at the same time improving them as learning tools
2) conduct and disseminate a robust assessment of simulation models as learning tools, including a unique assessment of the impact of the user interface on learning gains
3) launch and promote a first-class website which would host the models and foster a community of educators to sustain and grow the project for the foreseeable future.


It is now clear that a large and growing number of institutions are using Virtual Biology Lab in their curricula. Because of this, we feel particularly obligated to ensure that the resource remains accessible as computing technology changes. We are redeveloping our current and future models in HTML5, such that they will run on all modern web browsers and computing platforms for the foreseeable future. Along with redeveloping the models currently being used, we will expand the scope of the project by developing new models.

The new models we are developing functionally similar, but graphically modern, versions our current models. This affords us the opportunity to conduct a comparative assessment of both versions to determine if the graphically enhanced interface improves, detracts from, or has no effect on student engagement and learning outcomes. This question is not trivial given the expense and time needed to keep up with the ムstate-of-the-artメ in graphics-based software. This represents an exceptionally large general assessment of the efficacy of simulation models as education tools, with assessments being conducted at a large R1 university, a mid-sized regional university, and a community college.


The major objective of this project is to develop our models to be as permanent and widely accessible as possible. We will use the Construct 2 game development platform to achieve this because it: 1) provides all the functionality we require for the simulations; 2) publishes as HTML5 script which runs on all major browsers and platforms; and , 3) will allow us to provide a much improved user interface for the models. We also plan to develop six new models (for a total of 26) covering general topics in ecology and evolution. As with the models already completed, new models will be based on established theory and empirical data. The models will address different topics, but there will be conceptual overlap among them.

Addressing one of the few negative comments we got is that the Netlogo interface is graphically ムprimitiveメ. As described above, we will develop functionally similar, but graphically modern, versions of our most popular models. We will then do a comparative assessment of both versions to determine if the graphically enhanced interface improves, detracts from, or has no effect on student learning outcomes. This is important to know, not only to maximize learning outcomes, but also to generally inform how educational value for effort is gained from developing an intuitive GUI for the target population of undergraduate biology students.

Broader Impacts

The motivation for this proposal is to increase the broader impact of Virtual Biology Lab. We originally developed the project for use in our own courses, but encouragement from a professor who discovered our models online prompted us to bring the project up to standards for widespread use. In this implementation/completion phase of the project, we will enhance our website and will develop new models, and new versions of existing models, which will broaden the range of platforms on which they can run. Also, we will facilitate a user community, and publicize the project through direct mailing, educational publications, and at professional conferences.
The impact of this project is certainly broadened by the fact that the online material will be a free resource. This aspect is even more important when so many colleges and universities are in budget crisis. Also, this resource can be used anywhere with internet access with no need to install program software on local computers.

Unexpected Challenges

This current IUSE project was developed to address an unexpected challenge that arose from a previous CCLI project in that computer-based resources have a technologically-limited 'shelf life'. The use Virtual Biology Lab grew to an average of over 3500 users per month as it was integrated into curricula. However, the current web-browsers no longer support the java-based models, and they will be redeveloped in a model format. This general issue poses a challenge for both developers and faculty building a long-term curriculum.


Jones TC & TF Laughlin. 2010. PopGen Fishbowl: a free, online simulation of microevolutionary processes. The American Biology Teacher 72:100-103

Jones TC & TF Laughlin. 2009. Learning to measure biodiversity: two agent-based models simulate sampling methods and provide data for calculating diversity indices. The American Biology Teacher 71:406-410

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