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10.1: Unit Overview and Content Focus

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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This biology unit was designed for two purposes. First, it integrates modeling and simulation into lesson activities as a means to teach the engineering design process to students. Second, it provides students with the opportunity to apply previously mastered biology content to real-world scenarios, while scaffolding in specific content regarding the characteristics of microorganisms and how they can help or hurt the environment and the other organisms living therein. Each lesson can be used individually when covering topics such as genetics, evolution, classification, or microorganisms. Taken together, they form a unit that can be used to emphasize the ModSim Model.

Unit Set-up (can be read with students)

With the landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has officially retired the fabled space shuttle program and has reached the end of an era in space travel and exploration. NASA has now been charged by President Barack Obama with creating a space program focused on the following four major areas:

1. Creating safer, more secure, efficient, and environmentally friendly air transportation systems. 2. Directing the identification, development, and validation of exploration systems and technologies. 3. Exploring our own solar system and the universe beyond. 4. Extending the duration and boundaries of human space flight to create new opportunities for exploration and discovery.

As a part of the new focus on moving out into our solar system, NASA has increased its emphasis on several things, including research into xenobiology and the interactions of differing life forms from disparate environments. As was graphically described in Michael Crichton's novel The Andromeda Strain, it is of utmost importance that we take every precaution to ensure that, as we explore further from our planet, we do not introduce some alien life form into our environment that could potentially harm us or the delicate ecosystems we are a part of. Conversely, we also need to ensure that we are not acting like the European settlers of the 15th and 16th centuries, introducing microorganisms into an environment where they have the potential to wipe out whole populations of indigenous life forms.

Content Focus

This unit explores the interactions between ourselves and potential alien life forms from beyond our earthly environment in order to determine the potential positive and negative consequences of those interactions. In particular, this unit will focus on student problem-solving activities, asking students to develop a plan should one of several scenarios unfold involving the introduction of alien microbial life on Earth. The specific content to be covered involves the review of relevant material followed by an in-depth discussion of the following:

  • The types of genetic mutations, including vertical and horizontal gene transfer mechanisms and how this can lead to the creation of novel traits and/or novel organisms.
  • How populations respond to external factors, as well as how natural selection might act on the make-up of such an altered population over time.
  • The role of microorganisms in maintaining and disrupting the health of organisms and ecosystems, specifically the mechanisms by which diseases are transmitted through a population.
  • How to utilize modeling and simulation to explore scenarios with regard to both short-term and long-term consequences of introducing foreign organisms (or their genetic material) into a new organism or population:
    • Short-term How diseases are spread.
    • Long-term 1) How vertical gene transfer amongst a species, including the transfer of novel genetic material, can lead to novel traits; 2) how a change to an organism’s genetic material affects an organism’s characteristics; and 3) how populations carrying these changes evolve over time.

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