The Avida-ED Project
Instructor Support Materials


Technology for Teaching Evolution and
the Nature of Science using Digital Organisms

Robert T. Pennock


Avida-ED is an NSF-funded project to develop a digital evolution educational software platform for use in biology courses. My co-PIs on the project are Charles Ofria, Richard Lenski, and Diane Ebert-May.


Background InformationCurricula & Sample ExercisesImages


• To find out about some of the pedagogical goals of the project and the thinking that shaped the design and development of Avida-ED see:

Robert T. Pennock. "Learning Evolution and the Nature of Science using Evolutionary Computing and Artificial Life" McGill Journal of Education (Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 211-224, 2007)

Avida-ED is meant to be used not only to help teach about evolution, but also the nature of science. Evolution is one of the best examples for helping students understand how science works.

Robert T. Pennock. "On Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science" In Cracraft, J. and R. Bybee (eds.). Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Colorado Springs, CO. (pp. 1-12, 2005)

Avida-ED is not a simulation of evolution, but an instance of it. For a philosophical treatment of scientific models and the difference between a simulation and an instance as these concepts relate to evolutionary computation see:

Robert T. Pennock. "Models, Simulations, Instantiations and Evidence: The Case of Digital Evolution." Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence (Vol. 19, No. 1, 2007)

To learn more about the power of evolutionary computation see:

Robert T. Pennock. "Can Darwinian Mechanisms Make Novel Discoveries?: Learning from discoveries made by evolving neural networks." Foundations of Science (Vol. 5 no. 2, pp. 225-238, 2000)

The research platform that Avida-ED is built upon is a well-established model system that has been used to test a wide range of evolutionary hypotheses. Some of the research done by our Digital Evolution Lab at Michigan State University was written up in a cover story "Testing Darwin" in Discover magazine. Following are a few of the scientific publications that have resulted from this exciting research:

Richard E. Lenski, Charles Ofria, Robert T. Pennock, Christoph Adami. "The Evolutionary Origin of Complex Features" Nature (2003, Vol. 423, pp. 139-145)

Ofria, C., Adami, C., and Collier, T.C. "Selective pressures on genomes in evolution." Journal of Theoretical Biology. (2003, 222:466-483.

Sherry Goings, Jeff Clune, Charles Ofria, Robert T. Pennock. "Kin-Selection: The Rise and Fall of Kin-Cheaters" In Pollack, Jordan, M. Bedau, P. Husbands, T. Ikegami and R. Watson (eds.) Artificial Life IX: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on the Simulation and Synthesis of Living Systems. (2004, pp. 303-308)



Peer-reviewed model lessons, including in-class, homework and lab exercises, that instructors may download and modify for their own classes will soon be listed here. In the meantime, click here for a file of unedited model lessons.

Note: The user's manual is available from the download page.



Fig. 1: A view in the virtual Petri dish. The population viewer allows the user to monitor the population's fitness, genotype distribution, metabolic rate, and other characteristics.

Fig. 2: The Organism Viewer shows an animation of the execution of a digital organism's genome.

Last updated 7/7/08.
© Robert T. Pennock