Fictional scenarios for simulations

Updated: Apr 27

Why do the simulations on Biology Simulations focus on fictional organisms instead of utilizing real-world examples? Learning about the world and how it works is the primary focus of science. Science teachers know that connections to the real world are one of our primary engagement points with students. Medicine, engineering, fun animal facts...these are often the basis for helping middle and high school students gain interest in and understanding of course materials.

While these real-world connections are essential to science instruction, real examples may be incredibly complex or not well understood. In a K-12 setting, it can be difficult to accurately represent real systems in a way that is still accessible for students. As such, even when teachers use real examples, we often simplify them.

Heredity is a prime example of this. Middle and high school teachers have used human examples such as tongue rolling, hair color, and eye color to study heredity. These examples are typically simplified to a single gene with two alleles. However, none of these traits follow a simple inheritance pattern (See also: 6 oversimplified genetics examples). In fact, very few human genetic traits definitively follow a simple inheritance pattern. Even when human traits seem to follow simple inheritance most of the time, there always seem to be exceptions, as many factors can cause variation to phenotypes.

Picture Source: OUP Blog, Carolina Relton

Creating fictional scenarios allows me to focus on straightforward examples without oversimplifying real life. A fictional virtual lab can serve as an introduction before exploring and discussing the variations of real life scenarios. Certainly, an introductory high school biology class isn't going to get into many epigenetics details, but students can understand the concept that many factors can affect outcomes. There's no need for students to know the specifics of any particular trait, so researching real examples is a good opportunity to let students each branch out and research different scenarios.

There is also a practical aspect to my choice to create fictional scenarios. Fictional setups give me the freedom to introduce specific concepts without butchering reality. I also don't have to worry about my numbers (speed, population size, growth rates, etc.) matching realistic data, because the scenario is fictional. As long as the simulation has internal consistency, I have relative freedom in selecting the specific parameters of the data.

As a final point, I think that simulations are a supplement to hands on laboratory and field work. I've focused my simulation making efforts on scenarios that are difficult to test in traditional high school settings and time frames. Technology has made virtual labs an integral component of modern science classes, but they should not replace hands-on science experiences.

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