Review of dragon genetics

Review of Dragon Genetics

Piles and piles of research show that students learn better when they are fully and actively engaged in what they are learning, rather than attempting to passively absorb information. That is why good teachers in all subjects and at all levels find ways to get students fully involved. In science classes, one of the most important tools to achieve this goal is hands-on lab work.

Unfortunately, some topics don’t lend themselves very well to classroom experimentation. Genetics is a good example. Most studies of genetics require breeding large numbers of organisms through several generations. Some teachers manage to do fruit fly, bacteria, or Arabadopisis (a species of quick growing mustard plant) breeding experiments, but the logistics are daunting. Fortunately, there are alternatives. The very best alternative that I am aware of is Dragon Genetics.

Dragon Genetics is a free, downloadable program made by Pedogicica. As the name suggests, it allows users to explore the genetics of dragons in great depth. By happy coincidence, dragons have many genetic parallels with more familiar organisms, including humans.

Dragon Genetics is admirably clear and thorough. It starts out at the very beginning, and it goes all the way through the topics covered in AP Biology. From the beginning, it explicitly links the principles of genetics with the physical structure of chromosomes, rather than following the historical path of first discussing phenotypes and patterns of inheritance and only later connecting those facts to the physical structure of DNA.

Dragon Genetics teaches about monohybrids, dihybrids, mutations, and x-linked traits, among other topics. It does not discuss epigenetics, mitochondrial inheritance, or other similarly advanced subjects.

One of the characteristics that make Dragon Genetics effective is its sense of whimsy. The graphics are not cutting-edge, but the cartoon dragons are appealing and it is fun to figure out how to breed fire-breathing animals. At least as important is the structure of Dragon Genetics. The student must actively engage with the program, and do so successfully before being allowed to move on. In essence, the student learns about genetics by performing «experiments» and interpreting the results. Carefully structured questions guide the student through the process of interpreting «experimental» data. Of course the experiments are just computer models, with pre-determined results, but they are very good models and they allow for a genuine process of inquiry to take place.

As a tutor, I have used Dragon Genetics as an independent-study tool with considerable success. Because time is often quite limited when I’m helping students prepare for exams such as the Living Environment Regents, the SAT subject test in biology, and AP Biology, I will have students use Dragon Genetics to review genetics and related topics such as meiosis on their own, thereby buying more time to spend on everything else. In my experience, students who have completed Dragon Genetics almost always demonstrate a very good understanding of the material covered.

The program could also be used in a classroom context, as long as sufficient computers are available. Dragon Genetics is broken down into eight core lessons and four optional lessons. Each of the core lessons are designed to take about 45-50 minutes, so they will fit into most class periods. The optional lessons are shorter.

As a tutor who needs to get «results», in the form of higher test scores, I appreciate the way that Dragon Genetics teaches content. As a teacher who genuinely loves science and cares about teaching logical thinking skills and the thought processes that underlie all science, I am enthusiastic about the way that Dragon Genetics teaches critical thinking and scientific method.

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