PBS Offers Mike Horn’s Evolution Games as Online Lab for High School

PBS Offers Mike Horn’s Evolution Games as Online Lab for High School

PBS NOVA Evolution Lab

NOVA lab introduces teens to processes of evolution

Assistant professor Michael Horn’s museum research on evolution has become part of a new online PBS NOVA unit for high school students called “Evolution Lab.” Four science museums nationwide already host Life on Earth installations developed by Horn and his colleagues to invite discovery about evolution and the history of life on Earth.

Nova’s Evolution Lab features games to help teens understand phylogenetics—the study of the evolutionary relationships between species. Players evaluate similarities in the traits and DNA of species and conduct their own investigations in a virtual tree of life. Along the way, they can watch short animated videos that explain the evidence of evolution and illustrate it with specific examples.

One of six labs offered by NOVA, the Evolution Lab uses a phylogeny game and an interactive tree of life for students to explore the relationships between species and the history of life on Earth. These games help participants to understand evolution and how it has led to the diversity of species on Earth:

  • Build a Tree – In this game, players create their own phylogenetic trees by analyzing species and shared traits. Looking at fossils, biogeography and DNA sheds light on the history of life on Earth.
  • Deep Tree – Players explore an interactive tree of life showing evolutionary relationships among 70,000 species from the beginning of life to the present. Players see the traits that species share and when they diverged.
Mike Horn

“You can take an awe-inspiring journey from the very earliest organisms that appeared on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago, to the remarkable diversity of species that we see today," says Horn.

While Horn originally developed the games as museum exhibits, NOVA’s web version can be run on computers and mobile devices.

“Games can be powerful tools for giving people a motivating and structured learning experience,” Horn told PBS. From his point of view, the games give participants a weighty challenge to puzzle through, so they can make mistakes and try again, just like real scientists.

For educators looking to use the Evolution Lab with their students, there are built-in assessments in Build a Tree that check for understanding as well as educator resources that provides tips and content for teaching evolution.

The interactive games were developed by the Life on Earth Project, based at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Horn is co-principal investigator of the project, which is led by principal investigator Chia Shen.

Horn is an assistant professor of learning sciences at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy and also of computer science in McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. His research considers the intersection of human-computer interaction and learning with a focus on thoughtful uses of emerging technologies in diverse learning settings.

Life on Earth exhibits that Horn co-created are at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, the California Academy of Sciences, the University of Nebraska State Museum and the Harvard Museum of Natural History. His Robot Park exhibit to teach young children programming is at the Boston Museum of Science, and his Frog Pond exhibit for learning computer programming is at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Horn’s recent projects have also included an investigation of multi-touch tabletops in natural history museums and the use of tangible programming languages in kindergarten classrooms and science museums.

Horn earned his PhD in computer science at Tufts University working in the departments of Computer Science and Child Development. He has also worked as a software engineer for Classroom Connect and iRobot Corporation.

NOVA Labs is produced by WGBH in Boston.

Photo: SESP assistant professor Michael Horn shows his Deep Tree exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 2/3/16