Exploring biology through a complex systems lens

About This Project

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BioGraph is a series of high school biology units and support materials using agent-based computer models to explore complex systems.

BioGraph is a collaborative, research-based design project created by the Scheller Teacher Education Program and the Graduate School of Education at UPenn. BioGraph improves comprehension of biology by incorporating complex systems ideas (e.g. how birds behave in a flock) into the standard biology curriculum. It uses a blocks-based programming language – StarLogo Nova – to help students engage with classroom material. The project allows us to work with educators to develop and implement curriculums. The data collected can be used to track and interpret changes in the learning environment.

According to the NECSI web site “Complex Systems is a new field of science studying how parts of a system give rise to the collective behaviors of the system, and how the system interacts with its environment…”

In a typical high school biology class, students are often taught how individuals act, without addressing how their movements and interactions (multiplied by thousands and millions of them performing actions in parallel) result in the often surprising behavior of biological systems as a whole.

Agent-based computer models provide a way to visualize and study complex systems. An agent-based model consists of a virtual world filled with interacting ‘agents,’ which are individuals that follow simple rules. They can represent anything: people, cars, atoms, rabbits, cells etc. BioGraph uses these models to facilitate the exploration of biology through a complex systems lens.

Modeling a Pond Ecosystem

Teacher Materials     Student Materials     StarLogo Nova Model

Gene Regulation and Protein Synthesis

Teacher Materials     Student Materials     StarLogo Nova Model

Glucose Transport

Teacher Materials     Student Materials     StarLogo Nova Model

Evolution: Something’s Fishy

Teacher Materials     Student Materials     StarLogo Nova Model

Enzymes: Chew on This! 

Teacher Materials     Student Materials     StarLogo Nova Model


Biograph is funded by National Science Foundation Award #1019228.

Related projects
StarLogo Nova
Programming Tools
A visual programming tool for making 3D games and simulations
Grade Range

High School


Desktop, Web browser

Content Area(s)

Biology, Complex Systems

Project Manager

Josh Sheldon

Curricula, Programming Tools