BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An innovative, educational computing platform
developed by University at Buffalo faculty members and hosted by
the cloud (remote, high-capacity, scalable servers) is helping UB
students understand parts of evolutionary biology on an entirely
new level. Soon, high-school and middle-school students will
benefit from the same tool as well.
Pop! World, developed by UB faculty members with a $250,000
National Science Foundation grant, takes advantage of cloud
computing, which allows programs to run on remote servers instead
of through departmental or institutional servers. That feature
allows resource-intensive programs to serve many users regardless
of their physical location without sacrificing speed or quality of
"The cloud serves as a way to distribute resources for free
without limits on how many people can access it and with no regard
to what kind of computer you are downloading to," says Jessica
Poulin, PhD, research assistant professor in the Department of
Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, who
developed Pop! World with principal investigator Bina Ramamurthy,
PhD, research associate professor in the Department of Computer
Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied
Sciences, and Katharina Dittmar, PhD, assistant professor of
biological sciences. "Everybody can get there."
UB faculty members designed Pop! World because they wanted to
get college students more excited about population genetics; they
also wanted to maintain the university's unique freshman lab
requirements at a time when resources are growing more scarce.
UB is one of the few universities in the U.S. that encourages
freshmen interested in biology to begin experiencing labs during
their first semester on campus.
"We put our freshmen right into labs because students who might
otherwise be lost from the major are captivated when they get to do
science," Poulin says. "When you sit in a lecture hall with 400
people and someone is talking about flatworms, what do you care?
Despite the logistical difficulties, and the intense demands on
staff time, we think that getting freshmen into labs is one of our
department's great strengths. We didn't want to discontinue
At the same time, Poulin says that it is difficult to convey the
main concepts of population genetics at this level, particularly
those that are mathematically demanding.
Hired in 2008 to revamp UB's evolutionary biology curriculum for
Bio 200, Poulin says that the department was seeking ways to
maintain and improve the course and the lab for students without
requiring additional resources, such as teaching assistants.
"Almost all of evolutionary theory can be mathematically modeled
if you know enough information to begin with," she says. "If you
enter the correct parameters into the computer, the computer will
tell you what will happen after one generation or a thousand
generations. I wanted students to be exposed to something that made
them feel they were actually watching evolution happen. I wanted it
to be captivating."
While some computational tools exist to help students with
population genetics -- the mathematical analysis of evolution --
the result is often nothing more dramatic than a line graph.
"Our students grew up in the Internet age surrounded by MP3
players, wireless phones and social networking apps," says
Ramamurthy, "so the visual aspects of Pop! World are certainly very
appealing to them."
The UB team programmed Pop! World in Adobe Flash, which lends a
highly visual, nearly tactile look to the program. While the
current version illustrates evolution with red and green lizards,
it is highly adaptable, so it can be used with any population of
organisms. It also is highly scalable, so that it can be made more
complex, to serve the needs of population genetics researchers, or
less complex, to serve the needs of middle- and high-school
A preliminary version of Pop! World is running on the Google App
Engine Cloud. It can be accessed by going to http://popworld15.appspot.com/.
With the help of the NSF grant, the UB team is now creating a
sophisticated version of the tool, expected to be available by Fall
"Our idea was to use general principles of population genetics
not only to convey the principle in the context of evolutionary
biology but to make sure that students understand visually what's
happening with the mathematics behind it," explains Dittmar.
When an early version of Pop! World was used to teach
evolutionary biology last summer, students and teaching assistants
"The TAs loved it because it facilitated their explanations of a
very complicated problem," Poulin says.
"Pop! World gives students the visual background they need to
understand complex mathematical problems," Dittmar adds. "And it
works kind of like a video game, which serves the current
population of undergrads well."
That visual appeal is also expected to go far with middle-school
and high-school biology students, groups the UB team hopes to
excite about evolution; by spring, they expect to have completed a
modified version for them as well.
By making evolutionary biology more visually appealing and,
thus, more accessible, Poulin hopes that Pop! World will make
evolution itself a more appealing subject for secondary schools to
"There's a huge disconnect," she says. "The universities all
accept evolution as fact. It's not a question. But many high
schools and middle schools don't want to touch it. They don't want
to deal with the politics of it."
Her hope is that the visual and educational appeal of Pop! World
and the ease of using it will begin to change that situation.
The UB team's grant, "A Cloud-enabled Evolutionary Genetics
Learning Tool for Engaging the Cyber-savvy Generation" (NSF OCI
CI-Team 1041280) from the NSF's Office of Cyberinfrastructure, will
run for two years.
Hongsik Kim, Jungeun Lee and Byunghun Jang, all former UB
graduate students in the Department of Computer Science and
Engineering, also were involved in the project.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.