Fall 2023

Natural Selections

Emma Howell and young students playing Speciation at a table.
Students play Speciation with doctoral student Emma Howell MS'22 at the Wisconsin Science Festival. Photo courtesy of Bret Payseur


Speciation, the formation of new and distinct species over time, is an abstract concept that can be difficult for younger students to grasp. Multiple factors from genetics to animal behavior influence and complicate this evolutionary process. But an educational card game developed in the Department of Genetics is making speciation easier to comprehend.

Genetics professor Bret Payseur and colleagues in his lab spend much of their time on evolution and genetics research. However, they’re also committed to outreach and community service. This includes educating students about complex research topics. After brainstorming many ideas for how best to meet students’ needs, Payseur and postdoc Megan Frayer PhD’22 created a card game focused on speciation.

“We collaborated with [education and outreach manager] Travis Tangen and his team at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and [former outreach director] Kevin Niemi at WISCIENCE to develop resources to help teachers teach speciation,” Frayer says. “I learned a lot about how outreach and teaching resources are developed.”

In the card game — fittingly named Speciation — players compete to form new species with cards denoting factors that contribute to speciation. It’s designed for middle and high school audiences, but anyone interested in understanding speciation can play.

“Speciation is important to understand because it’s the process that generates biodiversity,” Frayer says. “The game can help students understand important aspects of speciation — such as the different types of reproductive isolation — in a way that is fun and engaging. I hope the game will also help students connect with research, as the game features many diverse examples of speciation studies.”

Students got a chance to play Speciation with Frayer, Payseur, and other members of Payseur’s lab during the 2022 Wisconsin Science Festival, which was held in mid-October at locations across the state.

“Even with the limited amount of time they had, the students asked good questions and seemed to be learning,” Frayer says. “I hope that players appreciate that the complexity is part of what makes speciation interesting and fun to study — every instance is unique!”

Speciation was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation.

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