Teacher Guide (with standards) to Biology Simulations
Updated: Aug 13
Updated August 12, 2023
This post describes the primary target audiences for each simulation, discusses possible uses, and links the simulations to standards (NGSS Discipline Area Core Ideas, AP Bio and Environmental Science Units, and Ohio, since that is where I teach). Depending on how they are approached (inquiry vs. directed lab), the simulations can be used to incorporate some general scientific practice standards:
NGSS - Science and Engineering Practices, specifically Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
Ohio - Nature of Science, Scientific Inquiry, Practice, and Applications
AP Biology - Science Practices 4 and 5
AP Environmental Science - Science Practices 4 and 5
Looking for an activity to use with a simulation? Check out the Google Drive or resource page. For any Google Docs, make a copy to edit. All simulations and related materials are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share-Alike License. From Creative Commons: "This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under identical terms." Basically, you are welcome to use any of the site materials as you wish as long as you don't sell anything.
Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions or feedback.
Arms Race: The arms race simulation is an opportunity for students to study an"arms race" involving prey toxicity and predator resistance and an evolutionary trade-off in the predator. The arms race blog post describes the scenario that the simulation is based on and provides some additional resources. Before attempting to work with this, students should already have a good understanding of natural selection. I use it with 9th grade Honors, but it would also be appropriate for AP Bio/College Intro.
AP Biology 7.1 and 7.2
Bottleneck Event and Founder Effect: These two simulations are probably the simplest on the site. They are intended to introduce examples of genetic drift. Both are intended for introductory high school biology. They can also serve as a review for AP Biology students.
NGSS does not require non-selective forces, including genetic drift. The data analysis practiced in these simulations can still fit into Science Practices and Crosscutting Concepts
AP Biology 7.4
Evolution: 10,000: This simulation tracks a population through 10,000 years. Students can select the phenotypes for the starting population and the starting environment. The simulation progresses in 1,000-year chunks, providing data at each stop point. Designed for middle school or high school as an introduction or review of natural selection and variation.
NGSS MS-LS4-4, HS-LS4-3
Ohio 8.LS.1, B.E.1
AP Biology 7.1
AP ES 2.6
Mutation: This activity simulates a bacterial mutagenesis lab. The lab can be used to focus on mutation rates or the simulation can be an opportunity to introduce some details of molecular genetics, including base structure, DNA repair functions, and the molecular specifics of UV-induced mutation. Depending on the level of detail discussed, this activity could be appropriate for a wide range of students.
NGSS HS-LS1-1, HS-LS3-1, HS-LS3-2
Ohio B.H.4, B.E.1
AP Biology 6.7, 7.4
Natural Selection: This is an introduction to natural selection. It can work as a formal lab or an informal introduction to the concept of natural selection based on the environment. I use it with 9th-grade students for introductory high school biology, but it could be applied to middle school students or as a quick review for AP students.
NGSS MS-LS4-4, HS-LS4-3
Ohio 8.LS.1, B.E.1
AP Biology 7.1
AP ES 2.6
Population Genetics: This simulation was created with AP Biology in mind. It is intended to be an introduction/follow-up to the Hardy-Weinberg spreadsheet modeling lab. Students can use the data collected for null hypothesis testing (here is a blog post explaining an example). It can be used to test natural selection, genetic drift, and mutation rates. The simulation could be used for introductory biology but may require additional teacher direction, particularly if students don't already have a strong background in heredity.
AP Biology 7.2, 7.4, and 7.5
Sexual Selection: This simulation is intended to help students understand not only the concept of sexual selection but also how natural selection is at play in sexual selection examples as well. Traits that are sexually selected for often have trade-offs in terms of survival. I use this simulation with introductory biology, but it can be paired with the population genetics simulation (which does not address sexual selection) for AP biology as well.
AP Biology 7.2, 7.5
Biodiversity: The biodiversity simulation produces data that can be used for quantifying biodiversity. This can be used on a very basic level with middle school, or even elementary students, or more complex calculations can be practiced with high school/post-secondary students. It was initially designed for teaching Simpson's Diversity Index for honors 9th grade. A worksheet option is available that specifically uses the version of Simpson that appears on the AP Biology formula sheet. See this post for a walkthrough of the AP Biology version of Simpson.
Ohio 7.LS.2, B.DI.1
AP Biology 8.5
AP ES 2.1
Competition: Like many of the simulations, it is designed with introductory high school biology in mind, but works as a review for AP classes. Ecology is a big focus for my 9th-grade classes, particularly honors, and I subsequently spend less time on that with AP Biology. However, the ecology simulations work at an AP level for teachers who have extensive AP ecology units or for students who need quick refreshers.
AP Biology 8.7, 8.5
AP ES 1.1
Macroinvertebrates: The macroinvertebrates simulation can be used in the same way as the biodiversity simulation. It can also be used as an introduction to water quality assessments using bioindicators. The associated standards for a biodiversity option are listed above (with the biodiversity simulation), so I won't repeat them here, instead focusing on the water quality analysis function. This was designed to be an introduction to water quality analysis before doing an actual field analysis, although for schools without easy river access this could be a stand-alone activity.
Ohio 3.ESS.3, 4.LS.1, B.DI.3
AP ES 8.2
Population Dynamics: I use this simulation as an inquiry opportunity for 9th-grade honors bio, but like many of the other simulations it can easily be an AP level activity. There is probably too much going on here for it to be easily converted to a middle school option.
AP Biology 8.4, 8.5
AP ES 3.5
Soil Texture: The soil texture simulation is designed for AP Environmental Science. The simulation produces random soil samples. Students use the proportions of sand, silt, and clay to identify the texture based on the USDA soil textural triangle. This is intended to be a supplement to the practical lab, serving as either an introduction or a follow-up for extra practice.
AP ES 4.3
Cell Energy: This simulation can do a lot; students can use it to study photosynthesis, cellular respiration, or ecosystem primary productivity based on dissolved oxygen levels. It also has enough variables to be a good inquiry option. I primarily use it for 9th-grade Biology but it is a good reintroduction to photosynthesis and respiration for AP or a good AP introduction to primary productivity calculations.
NGSS HS-LS1-5, HS-LS1-7, HS-LS2-5
AP Biology 3.5, 3.6, 8.2
AP ES 1.8
Enzyme: The enzyme simulation is designed to help students better visualize a reaction while monitoring concentration data. This can help students increase their conceptual awareness of an enzyme-mediated reaction before performing hands-on labs. It is also an inquiry opportunity by giving students control over a number of variables; enzyme concentrations, substrate concentrations, temperature, and pH. To increase the level (AP), an inhibitor can be added. The simulation can also be used to explore a metabolic pathway.
AP Biology 3.2, 3.3
Diffusion and Osmosis: The diffusion and osmosis simulation can be used to explore molecule movement in solutions and through a semipermeable membrane. Students can control temperature and the starting concentration of three molecules of different sizes on two sides of a container separated by a semipermeable membrane. It is designed for an introductory biology course but is a good review for AP students. It can also be used for younger students studying diffusion/dynamic equilibrium. The simulation is intended to help with visualization and is not intended to be a replacement for common lab activities (labs using dialysis tubing/vegetables/eggs).
Ohio 6.LS.3, B.C.1
AP Biology 2.8
Each of the heredity simulations can be used for casual comparisons or for statistical analysis. Here is a blog post with a chi-squared example.
Heredity I: Two autosomal, unlinked traits, each with one dominant allele and one recessive allele. The two traits can be tested independently (probably appropriate for a middle school audience), or studied in a dihybrid cross (bumping it to a high school rigor level).
NGSS MS-LS3-2, HS-LS3-1, HS-LS3-2
Ohio 8.LS.3, B.H.3
AP Biology 5.3
Heredity II: Tests one X-linked trait. For most schools, this will be an introductory high school biology topic that is reviewed in AP Bio.
AP Biology 5.4
Heredity III: Tests epistasis and incomplete dominance. Incomplete dominance can be tested without including epistasis. Incomplete dominance is often an introductory topic, while data analysis on gene interactions is typically more advanced.
AP Biology 5.4
Heredity IV: Involves two linked traits. Each trait can also be tested independently. A chi-squared analysis can be used to demonstrate that the genes do not assort independently. In addition, a back cross can be done to estimate the map unit distance between the genes. There is a blog post to help explain linkage and recombination.
AP Biology 5.4
Hematocrit: This simulation provides students with an opportunity to collect (and then analyze) hematocrit results from a population. This is designed for high school/introductory college anatomy and physiology courses.
AP Biology Key Term Review This game randomly selects key terms from the AP Biology Units for review.
Cell Structure: Students practice identifying cell structures in generic plant and animal cells. Great for learning or review.
Ohio 6.LS.3, B.C.1
AP Biology 2.1, 2.4
Carbon 'n Stuff: Practice identifying the compounds and molecules that are associated with Biology. Four sections are included; inorganic compounds, functional groups, monomers, and macromolecules. Designed primarily with AP Biology in mind.
AP Biology Unit 1
Anatomical Terms: Practice anatomical directional terms and planes on both human and cat figures.
Cat Anatomy: Practice identifying cat muscles and organs (*has actual cat dissection pictures). Designed for anatomy classes that use a cat dissection.
Environmental Science and Ecology: This game provides identification practice for several topics aimed at environmental science and ecology. The game has a Levels of Organization section that is appropriate for middle school but also for use as a review for advanced courses. The hydrologic cycle works well as a review or introduction for any level. The only factor included that is typically new at a high school level is transpiration. The nutrient cycles included are carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. These trend towards a more advanced audience and are specifically designed to be of use in AP Environmental Science and AP Biology courses. Finally, there is a soil horizons section that is designed for use with AP Environmental Science.
NGSS HS-LS2-4, HS-LS2-5
AP ES 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 4.3
Livestock Anatomy: Practice identifying goat and pig anatomy. This game is primarily aimed at students in agricultural programs (FFA, 4H, etc.).
Mammalian Organ Set: Practice identifying structures of the eye, heart, kidneys, and brain (*has actual cat dissection pictures).
Mission: Taxonomy: This game gives students a chance to practice identifying which animals belong to which groups (Porifera, Arthropoda, etc.). Taxonomic groups are a good tie-in to evolutionary concepts.
AP Bio: No curricular value here. Could potentially be used as a discussion starter about how stress and online distractions impact performance? It's really just a little bit of fun for my students...