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This article is in a large part a synthesis of Rieber 1996


GenScope is a type of microworld, also called computer-based manipulative by the authors.

“GenScope is a learning environment that uses the computer to provide an alternative to text-based science education. It provides teachers and learners with a new tool that enables students to investigate scientific and mathematical concepts through direct manipulation and experimentation.” (GenScope Homepage, retrieved 22:34, 4 October 2006 (MEST))

“GenScope gives students the ability to create dynamic models for manipulating a number of species characteristics such as horns, wings, legs, color, sex, scales, plates and the ability to breath fire. The program offers a new educational technology that uses the computer to bridge the gap between "facts and figures" observed in the natural world and the mental associations we construct to explain them - the gap between information and knowledge.” (GenScope About, retrieved 22:34, 4 October 2006 (MEST))

See also:

Features of the system

  • GenScrope is an exploratory software environment “designed to help students learn to reason and solve problems in the domain of genetics” (Horwitz & Christie, 2000:163).
Purpose and features
  • help students understand scientific explanations and also to gain insight into the nature of the scientific process.
  • Interestingly, their intent is to have students use it to try to determine, largely through inductive reasoning, the software’s underlying model (i.e., genetics). This is precisely the aim of much research on educational uses of simulations.
  • emphasis on qualitative understanding of the domain.
  • gives students a way to represent genetic problems and derive solutions interactively.
  • not require students to master the vocabulary of genetics before effectively using genetic concepts and principles.

Another significant barrier in understanding genetics, according to Horwitz, is the mismatch between how scientists actually study genetics and how it is taught:

  • Understanding genetics is largely an inductive exercise, trying to determine the cause from an observed set of effects.
  • In contrast, most science teaching is deductive, teaching the rule, followed by students having to deduce the results.
  • Moreover, the skills that a scientist uses are rarely taught in the classroom (i.e., using the scientific method to reason inductively).
  • Instead, most classroom practice activities are meant to let students rehearse factual information and solve similar problem sets.
  • Of course, knowing a correct answer on a worksheet does not mean that a student actually understands the underlying concepts and principles.
  • The GenScope curriculum was designed to have students use the GenScope tool in ways that mirror closely the methods used by actual scientists.
A genetics learning environment

Genetics is the study of how an organism inherits physical characteristics from its ancestors and passes them on to its descendants. Learning genetics is challenging because descriptions of how changes occur can be formulated at many different levels. GenScope provides students with 6 interdependent levels:

  1. molecules,
  2. chromosomes,
  3. cells,
  4. organisms,
  5. pedigrees,
  6. populations.

GenScope provides students with a simplified model of genetics for them to manipulate, beginning with the imaginary species of dragons. GenScope provides individual computer windows for each of the levels—students can interact with one of the levels, say via a DNA window to show the genes of an organism (i.e., genes that control whether a dragon has wings), and then see the results of their manipulation in the organism window (i.e., a dragon sprouting wings).

Students start by focusing on the relationships between the organism and the chromosome levels using the fictitious dragon species, progressively working up to higher levels of relationships dealing with real animals. After getting familiar with the GenScope interface for a few minutes, students are immediately given a challenge (e.g., a fire-breathing green dragon with legs, horns, and a tail but no wings). Students quickly master the ability to manipulate the genes at the chromosomal level to produce such an animal. Interestingly, the next step is to switch to a paper-and-pencil activity where students are asked to describe what a dragon would look like given printed screen shots of chromosomes. After students construct an answer, they are encouraged to use GenScope to verify, or correct, their answers. Students then progress to interrelating the DNA level to the chromosome and organism level. Students come to learn about how recessive and dominant genes can be combined to produce certain characteristics. For example, if wings are a recessive trait, a dragonwould have to possess two recessive genes to be born with wings. Students then progress to the cell level and consider how two parents may pass traits to their offspring. As shown, the pedagogical approach used here is to challenge students with problems to solve in GenScope, then give them time to work alone or in pairs to solve the problems through experimentation.


  • GenScope home page (including software downloads)


  • Horwitz, P., & Christie, M. A. (2000). Computer-based manipulatives for teaching scientific reasoning: An example. In M. J. Jacobson & R. B. Kozma (Eds.), Learning the sciences of the 21st century: Research, design, and implementing advanced technology learning environments (pp. 163–191). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Rieber, L. P. (1996) Microworlds, in Jonassen, David, H. (ed.) Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology. Second edition. Simon and Schuster, 583-603 ISBN 0-02-864663-0