Life Sciences / Science of Learning


Life On Earth Turns Evolution into an Interactive Media and Gaming Experience

Remember family tree projects from elementary school? You can probably recall hours spent interviewing family members and combing through old photo albums to create a poster that displayed several generations of family history.

Now, imagine doing a family tree project that took into account all the biodiversity and history of 3.5 billion years of life on Earth.

The Life on Earth team, based at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, did just that. The result of their project is a series of interactive, media-rich activities that combine innovative visualizations and touch-screen technology to help users understand evolution through common ancestry — a phylogenetic tree of life.

The Life on Earth team from left to right: Mike Horn, Amy Spiegel, Margaret Evans, Judy Diamond, Chia Shen, Florian Block, Brenda Phillips, Jonathan Christiansen, & Jim Hammerman

The Life on Earth team from left to right: Mike Horn, Amy Spiegel, Margaret Evans, Judy Diamond, Chia Shen, Florian Block, Brenda Phillips, Jonathan Christiansen, & Jim Hammerman. Click on the image to learn more about the team.

The Life on Earth project contains three learning activities that are currently available in several science museum exhibits:

DeepTree — an interactive visualization that allows users to zoom through the tree of life and learn how species are related


FloTree — a simulation that allows users to create environmental barriers with their hands and interrupt genetic flow, creating unique phylogenetic trees

FloTree — a simulation that allows users to create environmental barriers with their hands and interrupt genetic flow, creating unique phylogenetic trees


The Build-A-Tree game in actiom

Build-A-Tree — a puzzle game where users construct trees with existing species by dragging puzzle pieces representing species and traits

I recently got a chance to experience the Life on Earth activities firsthand and to talk to members of the team about their experiences in developing and promoting their project. Chia Shen is director of the Scientists’ Discovery Room (SDR) Lab at Harvard and the principal investigator of the Life on Earth project. Michael Horn is an assistant professor of Computer Science and Learning Science at Northwestern University and co-principal investigator and Florian Block is a research associate at the SDR Lab and one of the lead developers of Life on Earth.

The Life on Earth exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

 Why did you decide to focus on phylogeny in this project?

CHIA: The tree of life is an organizing metaphor that elegantly conveys important concepts of evolution including biodiversity, common descent, and inherited traits. One of our project’s most important goals is to help people see historical patterns of evolution that have emerged over millions and millions of years and to learn about key evolutionary milestones that have shaped the ecologies of today’s world. So, we’re using the tree as a vehicle to connect to these deeper concepts, to make the tree an open-ended space to explore the fascinating aspects of the tree of life. Understanding trees can be difficult, but we’re working to make it more accessible.

The other reason to focus on tree diagrams is that they’re important scientific representations in their own right. Biologists use tree diagrams all the time to express hypotheses about how different kinds of life are related through common descent. So, if people walk away from our exhibits with a better understanding of tree diagrams, that’s great.

What are some of the pedagogical ideas you explored while building Life on Earth?

CHIA & MICHAEL: One goal of science museums is to give people a chance to engage in active learning experiences that they can engage in with other people. These types of experiences are open-ended and self-directed. We assume that every person’s experience will be unique and will be shaped by a variety of connections to their personal experiences. We also think of scientific understanding as grounded in intuitive ideas based on our physical and social experience with the everyday world. By using a large interactive touchscreen, we try to create an embodied experience in which people can “swim” in a vast information space to build on their intuitive understandings of space, time, and social relationships.

The FloTree activity in action at a museum

People come to museums for many reasons, but one of the most important is to be inspired by new ideas and experiences. One of our main goals was to create a unique “wow” experience as you fly through the tree of life from the origins of life 3.5 billion years ago to modern species, encountering hundreds of branching points along the way.

What are some insights you’ve had from the way students have interacted with Build-A-Tree?

MICHAEL: One of the most interesting things we’re finding is that the game really works best when there are two people involved playing slightly different roles. Like when you have a parent and a child working together. The kids are great at playing with the game, moving things around the screen, trying different combinations, pressing all the buttons. That’s really important for Build-A-Tree to work as a game. Parents are really good at putting on the brakes. Saying, “Wait a minute! What’s going on here? Why does this work? What if we tried a different approach?” Both of those together seem to result in a really satisfying play experience where they really get to the ideas embedded in the Tree of Life. It’s wonderful to see them getting excited about moving through the levels because they understand how the tree represents relationships and traits. It’s also great to see kids leading the charge—they often figure things out before mom or dad, and they get to be the experts.

A family tackles one of the Build-A-Tree puzzles

A family tackles one of the Build-A-Tree puzzles

During development and testing, were there any hurdles you encountered that you didn’t expect?

FLORIAN: It took us many, many, many iterations to get the usability and learning to a point where we were happy with it. We explored many design directions that were, in the end, abandoned. You would think that interactive tabletop displays would be fantastic for supporting immersive, collaborative experiences. But the large screen space and the ability for many people to interact at the same time also make it really tricky to support intuitive interaction that goes beyond shallow levels of engagement. We think about questions like how to entice people to interact; how to support usability in the first 10-30 seconds of an experience; and how to draw visitors into increasingly deeper levels of engagement where they start to explore ideas and concepts of evolution.

What is the role of gaming in the learning process and how should educators approach gaming as a pedagogical tool?

MICHAEL: Games can be powerful tools for giving people a motivating and structured learning experience. But for us, it’s more about providing a really challenging problem in a context where it’s fine to fail over and over again as an integral process of learning. For the Build-A-Tree exhibit, a game was a great way for people to actually manipulate and build their own phylogenetic tree and to puzzle through evolutionary quandaries that real scientists have wrestled with over the centuries. The other nice thing about games is that they invite people to play together with other people, which was important for us.

A Build-A-Tree demo showcase

What’s next for the Life on Earth project?

CHIA: We’re really excited about moving from museums to reach a much broader audience with exploratory tools and games that people can access online and in app stores. We want to get people inspired about biology, evolution, and life on earth!

Visit the Life on Earth website to learn more about the project and check out additional videos of the museum installations in action on YouTube.


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Ralph Bouquet

    As the NOVA Education and Outreach Manager, Ralph helps make NOVA a valuable resource for educators through the production of digital resources like videos and web games, professional development opportunities, and collaboration with STEM education organizations. Before NOVA, Ralph taught high school biology and chemistry in Philadelphia and later developed web and mobile apps with the Canary Calendar team. Ralph received his B.A. from Harvard University, and focused on secondary science methods and urban education while working towards his M.Ed. from UPenn.