Mythological Model Organisms: Using Dragons to Teach Biology

Uploaded by NIGMS on 27.06.2011

Mythological Model Organisms: Using Dragons to Teach Biology Frieda Reichsman, Concord Consortium Randy Smith, Jackson Lab

Tell us about the dragons.

Frieda Reichsman: So our dragons are creatures that exist in a fantastical world, where students come into a
drake breeder’s guild, and these drakes are model species for dragons.
And this guild is very invested in understanding the genetics of drakes, as a model for dragons.
So students come in as trainees to the guild, and during that time as trainees they’re striving to move
up in the guild.
Why use dragons to teach students about complex biological concepts?

Randy Smith: We have complete and total control of their genome.
We can take research that was done last week, if we find it interesting, we can stick the
genes into the drakes, and they can become a new project. We
have ways to simplify the genome, so we’re using
real tools, but it’s now easier for the students to get to the answer.
So we own the genome. There’s no other creature right now that I can think of that
falls into that category. So from an educational standpoint it really gives us the ability to go in
and modify and change the program as necessary, as science moves, to keep it current.
What is the role of systems biology in developing these games?

A lot of what we teach at the high school level is pure mendelian genetics.
And what we wanted to do is, we wanted to really move that over to more complex genetics. So we
started introducing things like co-dominance, epistasis, and complex systems. And
some of the complex interacting genetics systems is starting to merge over into system biology.
We can take these models and put any simulation engine under them.
One of the advantages to the movement into the gaming is to allow us to do that.
What makes the dragon games special?

Randy Smith: The look on a high school student’s face when they get through one of these games and we tell them
that all the tools that were actually used are the same tools being used by post-docs...
that’s absolutely precious.
Who enjoys the games more: students or scientists?

Frieda Reichsman: Well, I’ll tell you the AP kids who have done Geniverse are the ones who
refuse to leave the classroom. You know, they are just so caught up in it
and they get into that color thing and they just don’t want to leave.
Randy Smith: I actually had a researcher who will remain nameless that
offered to test one of the games, and then the next day told me I
destroyed his entire afternoon’s productivity because he couldn’t put it down.
Why does this concept work for teaching biology to students?

Frieda Reichsman: It’s the gaming aspect that gets them excited.
And they catch on to it; they recognize suddenly that if they get something wrong,
it’s not the end of the world. Even the students who are normally
very uptight about that sort of thing –about getting anything wrong, my record has to be perfect –
even those students can get it in a gaming context. The failure is part of the game, and that they just
try again. So I think it’s the gaming that
really draws them in, and makes them feel safe to explore and to learn.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences National Institutes of Health May 2011