Inquirium’s Evolution: Two new WGBH/NOVA interactives

WGBH/NOVA approached us to build two web interactives on the topic of evolution to go with their new PBS television shows. They were specifically looking for data-driven investigations. “Great!” we thought. We’ve done web interactives! We’ve done evolution! And no one does data-driven investigations like we do! Where’s the catch?

Oh, you want it done in 3 months?

Both of them?

After a very frantic 3 months, we are happy to announce the launch of Inquirium’s latest creations, a pair of web-based investigation tools for teaching high school students about evolution.

On the surface, these interactives look like just another database and animated diagram. But we’ve designed the interactives around an activity context which draws students into data-driven investigations.

  • Bones of Contention has students playing the role of a physical anthropologist trying to identify and classify “mystery” fossils using a database of most of the significant hominid fossil finds.
  • Regulating Genes introduces students to the evolutionary processes at work during development (and technically, at conception) by having them explore how mutations in both coding and non-coding areas of genes lead to different morphological features in a fictional creature.

Cramming what could easily have been two year-long research and development projects into a single 3-month timeframe was an interesting challenge. We sharpened our teeth building similar software for longer term grant-funded projects, which afforded more opportunity for background research, formative evaluation, and design iteration. For this project, we had to adapt our design process to fit a new sort of timeline, forcing us to commit to certain design decisions very early in the process and leaving very little wiggle room to explore emergent ideas. There’s nothing like a short timeframe to make us reflect on our design process and pare down our cycles only to the bare essentials.

While the interactives are simple by necessity and by design (both are scoped to work within 1-2 class periods), they draw upon models of inquiry and investigation that, unfortunately, still do not see much light beyond the realm of academic research and school reform projects. Kudos to NOVA for bringing this approach to a wider audience.

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 evo-devo.

We conceived, designed, and produced both tools. We also created a complete set of classroom materials that include background essays, student worksheets, and teacher guides.