This paper presents an activity that engages students in model-based reasoning, requiring them to predict the behavior of the trp and lac operons under different environmental conditions. Students are presented six scenarios for the trp operon and five for the lac operon. In most of the scenarios, specific mutations have occurred in genetic elements of the system that alter the behavior from the norm. Students are also challenged to relate their understanding of operon behavior to the “Big Ideas” of homeostasis, evolution, information, interactions, and emergent properties. By using operons to teach students to reason with models of complex systems and understand broad themes, we equip them with powerful skills and ideas that form a solid foundation for their future learning in biology.

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