Biological Self-Organization Workshop

Workshop ad graphicLife, from molecular to ecological scales, depends on the arrangement of components into specific patterns, which form the basis for structure and function of biological systems. For example, different proteins have particular shapes, cytoskeletal filaments inside cells form specific structures during the cell cycle, animals like birds and fish cluster in particular patterns, and plant species show succession in a forest ecosystem. However, unlike man-made objects, most patterns in biological systems are neither preconfigured nor static. Instead, most biological patterns emerge dynamically through interactions between lower-level components, without an underlying template or blueprint, through a process called self-organization.

This workshop will explore what self-organization means and how it applies to biological systems using an interactive format that will include group discussions and hands-on computer modeling. We will explore questions such as: (i) what is self-organization? (ii) what are the key features of self-organizing systems? (iii) how does self-organization differ from other modes of organization? and (iv) what are the advantages of a self-organizing system?

This workshop will also include discussion of where this topic might best fit in your existing curriculum and how to use this topic to exemplify interdisciplinary science. The content of this workshop is designed to be appropriate for middle and high school science courses.

Workshop highlights:

  • Focus on cross-cutting concepts such as pattern formation, dynamics and scale that were identified by the National Research Council as part of the Framework for K-12 Science Education.
  • An example of the interdisciplinary nature of modern biological research. Specifically, this workshop will illustrate how computer modeling can enhance our understanding of biological processes.
  • Teachers will become familiarized with the free and user-friendly simulation software NetLogo that can be directly implemented in the classroom. The NetLogo package includes numerous pre-developed models for biology, chemistry, physics, and many other areas of science.

Biological Self-Organization Introduction

Biological Self-Organization Schooling Activity

Introduction to NetLogo with Flocking Activity


Plant cortical microtubules


Video from the research lab of Dr. Ram Dixit
Plant cortical microtubules imaged using time-lapse fluorescence microscopy. The green signal shows the microtubule polymer as it dynamically grows and shortens. The red signal marks the growing microtubule ends. Notice that individual microtubules turnover rapidly, but the overall array pattern persists stably over time. Also, notice that encounters between cortical microtubules lead to different outcomes that lead to their self-organization. Can you spot the different outcomes? How do these outcomes relate to the encounter angle?

Learn more about microtubules research in the Dixit lab


Science teachers executing rules of interaction to school like fish.

Science teachers executing rules of interaction to school like fish.

Ram Dixit, PhD, assistant professor of Biology, debriefing the schooling activity.

Ram Dixit (center), PhD, WUSTL assistant professor of Biology, debriefing the schooling activity.

Tony Weisstein, PhD, Truman State University, assists teachers learning to use NetLogo modeling software.

Tony Weisstein (left), PhD, Truman State University, assists teachers learning to use NetLogo modeling software. Mike Grupe (center), Lutheran High School North, and Michael Cowen Nissen (right), Gateway Middle School, manipulate the parameters of the bird flocking simulation.

Kirkwood High School science teacher Linda Dubis works through computer modeling of bird flocking with Ram Dixit.

Kirkwood High School science teacher Linda Dubis (left) works through computer modeling of bird flocking with Ram Dixit (right).