Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > The Natural Selection Game

The Natural Selection Game

Katherine McCarville
Upper Iowa University
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This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jul 30, 2009


This game simulates the effect of natural selection on two populations - a predator species and a prey species. The game was developed by Robert P. Gendron, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and I have modified it for use in a dinosaurs course. One major strength of this activity is that it engages kinetic learners.

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I use this activity in a lower-division dinosaurs course, which students primarily take for general education natural science credit.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Basic arithmetic skills are necessary. Students need to be able to add numbers and calculate averages. They can use calculators for this.

How the activity is situated in the course

Stand-alone exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students learn that it is a population that evolves, not an individual organism. They often have a quite pronounced Lamarckian view of evolution, and this exercise can help replace that misconception with a more correct understanding of the process of evolution through natural selection.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The game begins with formulating an hypothesis regarding what will happen to the traits of the predator and prey populations. The game itself is a test of that hypothesis.

The instructor can also use this activity to help students gain a better understanding of models and simulation through discussion of the assumptions, limitations and usefulness of the natural selection game. If this is a goal of the activity, have the students determine whether the game effectively tests the hypothesis or not.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students work in groups to play the game. Group roles are clearly defined in the game instructions. This gives the opportunity to work with students either explicitly or implicitly on teamwork skills. In addition, the group approach tends to help weaker students get through the mechanics and grasp the point of the activity.

Description of the activity/assignment

To prepare for the activity, students do background reading from Chapter 6 of Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs, by Anthony J. Martin (Basic Concepts in Evolutionary Theory section). In class, the day before running the activity, introduce students briefly to the rules of the game and have them prepare their game pieces. A showing of Walking With Dinosaurs: Time of the Titans would also be helpful.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The questions in the activity can be assigned as homework and then graded. On exams, students are asked questions regarding the process of biological evolution.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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