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PokéBio: Exploring Biology through Pocket Monsters

Endangered pocket monsters are waiting for the West Lafayette community to discover them on the Purdue campus. Inspired by the popular game PokémonGO, figurines of creatures based on Midwestern endangered species will be hidden around campus August 14-September 15. Visit the PokéBio website to find the locations of these creatures. The first 100 players to find all 11 PokéBio and the special PokéBoiler will receive a 3D-printed PokéBoiler keychain and unique sticker.

The fantastical critters were invented during a new course called PokéBio: Exploring Biology through Pocket Monsters. As students created their unique Pokémon, they learned ecology, evolution and conservation biology by transforming endangered species from the Midwest into imaginative and playful pocket monsters.

PokéBio was sparked by a conversation between Biology Professor Ximena Bernal and her son, Tomás Vargas-Bernal, who have been playing PokémonGO together for years. In the popular augmented reality game, players visit locations in the real world where they can virtually find and catch Pokémon, fantasy creatures with a variety of behaviors and special powers. 

When playing with Tomás, Professor Bernal often drew parallels between the game and the real world, explaining how both Pokémon and natural species have unique traits that reflect biological processes. Tomás pointed out that she could teach a whole class about these connections, and Professor Bernal realized the potential in her son's lighthearted suggestion. 

“A lot of traits that drive you to play Pokémon are the same ones that drive many of us to be scientists and, more generally, be in STEM fields,” Bernal said. “Curiosity, passion, collecting, kindness, working together, collaboration. There’s a lot in common between successful Pokémon trainers and scientists, but we don’t really portray science like that.” 

To leverage students' enthusiasm for Pokémon, Professor Bernal and Tomás co-created a course that uses Pokémon to teach biology. 

“One of the hurdles for many people to understand biology is memorizing the species names and overcoming all the jargon, yet kids easily learn the names of many dinosaurs and Pokémon,” Bernal said. 

The course exemplified the interdisciplinary and experiential learning that JMHC promotes. Working collaboratively, student teams created Pokémon based on local endangered species ranging from wolves to clams.The students constructed fictional creatures with unique strengths and attacks that mirrored the biological traits of their real-world counterparts. 

For example, a fish that is sensitive to changes in water quality became a fish-like Pokémon whose body detects and reflects subtle variations in water pollution, like a litmus strip measuring pH levels.

“Students have to understand the chosen endangered species really well to create their version of its Pokémon,” explained Professor Bernal. 

This immersive, hands-on learning experience blended conservation biology, science communication and artistic expression. Students used computer graphics and design skills to craft 3-D-printed models of their Pokémon, along with companion trading cards and short videos that depicted the creatures. 

The videos can be viewed on the PokéBio website. The map of the creatures’ locations on the Purdue campus is on the same website here. PokémonGO fans and intrepid explorers can begin their search on August 14.