Try Regulating Genes, hosted at pbs.org.
WGBH/NOVA approached us to build two web interactives to go with new NOVA television episodes on PBS. They were specifically looking for data-driven investigations. Both tools were created to accompany NOVA episodes commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species. One episode, "Becoming Human," explores human origins, and the other one, "What Darwin Never Knew," explores the emerging science of evolutionary developmental biology, also known as evo-devo.
(See our Bones of Contention project page for more information about the other interactive).
WGBH's goals included:
- Develop a flash interactive that expanded on one of the topics presented during approximately 6 hours of video episodes
- Develop an activity that is data-driven.
- Develop a classroom activity that takes 1 classroom period.
- Develop all accompanying materials, including teacher guides, student curriculum materials, and web pages.
- Complete both interactives within 3 months to correspond with the airing of the episodes.
In order to develop this interactive, we immersed ourselves in the subject matter through extensive reading and consulting with a variety of scientists working in the field. Our aim was to distill the concepts most fundamental to understanding the genetic processes that drive evolution — no small task!
Early in the process we came to two conclusions:
- Critical to understanding EvoDevo is a fundamental understanding of the developmental process through which a relatively few number of genes could result in the dizzying diversity of life.
- It became clear in talking with the various professors that this process was not easily grasped even by students at the undergraduate level, even over the course of an entire semester.
To provide high school students with a "taste" of these key concepts, we set out to design and develop an interactive that focused on the mechanisms of mutation at play during embryonic development. Our goal was to combine a visually annotated animation of the process along with a simple experimental procedure to allow students to explore the diversity of outcomes from very simple mutations.
- Identified a data-driven activity Finding meaningful data activity to use with an animation was a challenge. Our original concept for the interactive was to build a full simulation of a developing creature, using gene variations to code for things like number of body segments, when various segments appear, etc.
But our science advisors steered us away from such literal interpretations of the mechanisms of evodevo, as there are many more factors at work than can be properly portrayed, and many more that are simply not understood.
In the end, we created a "simulation" that modeled simple well-known mutations (e.g. color), and had students focus on the effects of mutation variations on the fully developed creatures as the data for their investigations.
- Designed with many subject matter experts. We ended up talking with many of the leading scientists in the field to understand what they did, what kinds of problems students have in understanding the materials, and how best to present it to them. These included Dr. Carole Labonne of Northwestern University, Dr. Mark Biggin of UC Berkeley, Dr. Chris Lowe of University of Chicago, and Dr. Robert Holmgren of Northwestern University, as well as Dr. Sean Carroll.
- Designed an explanatory animation One of the challenges in designing the animation itself was figuring out how to portray all of the events that occur during mutation. There are challenges in representing scale: from events at the DNA segments, up to the cell level, up to the level of the creature's body segments, to the whole creature itself. There are also challenges in representing time: Transcription events happen repeatedly within a cell nucleus, but each transcription event also needs to be followed by a corresponding triggering (or not) of a gene.
- Focus on the development of an imaginary creature. The evo devo process is ideally illustrated by examining the results of mutation on a creature. However, the development of even the simplest creatures (e.g. fruit flies and worms) have many layers of complexity and interactions that are not yet well understood. So rather than trying to dance around what is known and not known, and more important, trying not to convey false information, we decided with the help of Dr. Labonne, that using an imaginary creature to illustrate the concepts would be best.
- Developed in Flash. We worked closely with the folks at Creative Bottle who did a tremendous job delivering two interactives on short order.