BUGS Outreach wins Evolution Prize in BC

BUGS Outreach wins hat trick at Vancouver Evolution Fair

Biology undergraduate students (from left) Karl Heilbron, Andrew First and Spencer Jones were part of the team that won three of the five prizes at the 2010 Vancouver Evolution Festival Evolution Outreach Competition. First's Natural Selection Simulator program is seen running in the background.

By Mitchell Zimmer with notes from Karl Heilbron

After countless hours of brainstorming, development and testing, the Biology Undergraduate Society’s (BUGS) success at the Vancouver Evolution Festival seemed to be a natural selection. The Outreach team captured the first place as well as both third place prizes.

Karl Heilbron, Vice President of Outreach for BUGS, first heard of the festival through an email from a UBC mailing list. “I thought that this would be the perfect way to put it into my BUGS portfolio and do something I really enjoy.” The event was cosponsored by the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.

The Vancouver Evolution Festival was designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species" and Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. The festival organized an Evolution Outreach Competition where all Canadian graduate and undergraduate students were eligible to submit innovative, hands-on evolution lesson plans for students in grades K-12.

Heilbron sent out a mass email to members of BUGS and gathered a group of students who met on several occasions over a month to discuss strategies and brainstorm potential lesson plans. BUGS member Andrew First says, “We were throwing ideas around; we didn’t really know what we would do for it. One of the ideas was to do a game, just kind of on the fly. That one had actually ended up winning.” The team realized that a classroom of students could be assembled into groups representing different islands in the Galapagos with each island featuring different food sources. Each student would be supplied with a card representing a different species of finch that either ate seeds, nuts or insects. Two die would be thrown which would represent the selection pressure. “The idea was that we could make multiple islands each with their own bias” adds Heilbron. “That way, if you did it in a big classroom setting you could see selection for each of the three different traits on the three different islands… Just to show that it’s the environment that dictates what the fittest phenotype is going to be.”

The best ideas were made part of a coherent 30 minute PowerPoint lecture. This included an online evolution simulator created by Andrew First, specifically for the competition “I had a background in web development, so developing it was fairly natural for me… it was a lot of fun.” The evolution simulator can be found at and was one of the third prize co-winners.

The games were road tested through the cooperation of ten local elementary schools who allowed Spencer Jones, First and Heilbron to give a guest lecture on the topic of evolution. They presented the lecture to four classes ranging from grades 6-8 at two different schools. “One class that we visited was so enraptured that they asked us to come back after teaching the other classes to field questions” says Heilbron. “We were able to gain a thorough understanding of the young students' grasp of evolutionary concepts both before and after our lesson.”

The BUGS team generated five creative, evidence-based proposals. On March 1st Heilbron received an email from VEF notifying him that Western had won first place for the Galapagos Island game, assembled by Heilbron and First, as well as third place for First’s Natural Selection game and another third place for Cameron Hopkins work on the Speciation Game. The prizes had a total cash worth of $750.

It was decided that a portion of the earnings would be donated to BUGS to assist with future evolution outreach endeavors. The team is now pursuing ethics approval to publish a paper quantifying the effectiveness of their winning lesson plans.