Natural Selection Engineering Cover Photo
  • What’s in This Unit?

    Malaria infects millions and kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, making it one of the world’s largest public health problems. Even more concerning is the malaria-causing parasite’s ability to develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat it, which is foiling efforts to eradicate the disease. Part of the threat stems from the rapid life cycle of the Plasmodium parasite that causes the disease, allowing natural selection to quickly select for adaptive traits in the parasite population—in this case, drug resistance. Monotherapy (or single-drug treatments) has acted as a strong selection pressure, shifting the distribution of traits towards drug resistance for the particular drug used. In fact, many parasites today have multiple, existing resistances to available antimalarial drugs. Combination therapy (using two or more drugs) is currently the recommended course of action by the World Health Organization. In this Engineering Internship, students will explore the effects of various combinations of antimalarial drugs, carefully monitoring the type of drug, number of treatment days, and the dosage size in order to minimize drug resistance in the overall parasite population.

    The Natural Selection Engineering Internship asks students to design a treatment that does not cause an increase in the malaria parasite population while considering three criteria: minimizing drug resistance in the malaria parasite population; minimizing patient side effects; and keeping costs low. Students use the MalariaMed Design Tool to collect and analyze data, complete iterative tests, and learn about optimizing designs. By the end of this unit, students can describe engineering practices and compose a written proposal that supports their optimal design for making a safe and effective malaria treatment, one that also manages trade-offs between the project criteria. This 10-day immersive Engineering Internship is intended to follow the Natural Selection unit.



    Engineering Internships engage students by immersing them in the type of work that real engineers do. They situate learning in the context of doing, helping students engage with science ideas and engineering practices. While all Amplify Science middle school units put students in a role and provide them with a problem to solve, the Engineering Internships provide a more immersive environment by leveraging digital technologies to simulate a real workplace. Futura Engineering, the company for whom students serve as engineering interns, has a logo, a CEO, and multiple project directors. Students receive work direction via Daily Messages, and receive feedback on their work by the Futura project director. Unlike other engineering projects and curricula, students participate in an experience that is designed to simulate the best features of an actual internship, all while learning how to think like engineers in the context of doing engineering work.

    The Engineering Internships are also designed to provide students with an opportunity to apply a concept they’ve learned to solve a problem. Application situations like these enable students to see how information they’ve learned is useful, and offer the chance to deepen their understanding of that information. In addition, an application situation provides a way to assess students’ grasp of the concept being applied. We chose the context of malaria and drug resistance, since both are pressing and important problems; this context provides an opportunity for students to apply what they learned in the Natural Selection unit as they explore ways to prevent certain traits in a parasite population from increasing—in this case, the trait for high resistance to an antimalarial drug. By putting those concepts to work in making design decisions about which combinations of drugs to use for a malaria treatment, students are immersed in science and engineering practices while deepening their understanding of complex science. Engaging students in solution-oriented thinking around serious health and medical issues helps them explore how biological science and engineering can work together to improve the quality of life for people around the globe.



    In the first phase—the Research phase—students are introduced to the Engineering Internship during which they design malaria treatments that address three project criteria: minimizing the drug resistance in the malaria parasite population; minimizing patient side effects; and keeping costs low. In the multimodal Research phase, students work to understand more about malaria and learn about the various antimalarial drugs, which includes reviewing information from the Natural Selection unit and learning new science content about how natural selection can lead to drug resistance. They read detailed supporting articles in the Dossier; complete a physical, hands-on simulation; and work with the digital Design Tool—MalariaMed—to isolate variables and better understand how each drug affects the model population of malaria parasites and the project criteria.

    In the second phase—the Design phase—students use the MalariaMed Design Tool as a part of The Design Cycle. Students design malaria treatments by completing several iterative tests. They determine a sequence of drugs, then they build and test them, analyze the results, and continue by planning another iteration. Students learn the value of iterative tests, how to balance trade-offs, and how to make sense of the results in order to inform their next decisions. Interns submit an early version of their malaria treatment to the project director for feedback. They then have a chance to refine these designs in order to create an optimal design that appropriately addresses all the project criteria.

    In the third and final phase—the Proposal phase—students gather evidence to support their optimal design and write their proposals, using scientific communication skills to present and support their claim of the best solution. Students first focus on the types of evidence for the design decisions that helped them address each criterion, and submit an outline of the Design Decisions sections of the proposal to their project director for feedback. They use the feedback letter, Proposal Rubric, review of the Dossier, and peer discussion to improve the body of their proposals so it is clear how and why each decision led to the proposed optimal design. Students complete the proposal by adding an introduction and conclusion, which allows them to summarize the project and analyze the trade-offs of the proposed solution.

    The unit concludes with an intern exit survey, during which students reflect on what they’ve learned as interns about engineering practices. The final activity asks students to extend their understanding of engineering design by defining new problems that are related to controlling malaria without antimalarial drugs.