The first iPad application that I will look at is a Science app. I will try to alternate between dedicated science apps and the application of more general apps to science education. I have chosen to look at a little-known app called BugSim first (BugSim) . This free app can be used to teach the theory of natural selection.

The opening screen

It is not going to win any beauty prizes but it can demonstrate aspects of natural selection to students. It comes with a couple of preset scenarios as well as the ability to set up your own scenarios. It is based on a 1989 paper about using genetic algorithms to model natural selection. There is a certain amount of food in the environment, and the food regenerates at a certain rate. Both of these can be controlled using a slider before you start the simulation or during. You can also change the initial population size as well as the mutation rate of the “bugs”.

The simulator when it is running

The bugs need to eat a certain amount of food per time unit by passing over it. If they fail to reach this target, they die. The bugs can move into any of 8 directions depending on which of their genes are turned on. If all 8 movement genes are turned on the bug can move into any direction when it moves, and as such ends up staying in one place. If only one movement gene is turned on (say move left), then the bug can only move left. It is beneficial to stay in one place if the food regenerates there quickly; however it is suicide if the food does not generate in one place but at random across the screen. This is where the natural selection comes in.

Simulation running with a “Garden of Eden” in the top left.

Now let’s consider how this would work in a classroom setting. The student can set up a scenario of their own choice, or using instructions from their teacher, set up a specific scenario. They run the simulation and note what is happening. They can take screenshots whilst the simulation is going on to generate a timeline. Once the first scenario has played out another scenario can be started and the two results compared. Questions could be to explain why the outcomes of the different scenarios (e.g. one with random food distribution and one with a centralised food source called “garden of Eden” in the application) were different using the theory of natural selection. This could also be used as an initial discussion point leading into the theory of natural selection.

Pros: Excellent algorithm, multiple scenarios and options to generate new scenarios.

Cons: Not the prettiest, needs explanation before the students find it easy to work with.

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About alexvandijk

I am a Biology teacher at an independent school in the UK. My main interest is the use of technology in science education, with a specific emphasis on iPads. All views expressed are my own.

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