Learning to use ecological models

Last week we announced Patchy Prairies, our latest SimBio Virtual Lab. Those of you who used our Corridors, Stepping Stones, and Butterflies lab in EcoBeaker will recognize the storyline in Patchy Prairies - you have money to restore habitat for an endangered butterfly in Oregon. Where should you put it? What we didn't elaborate on in our brief announcement was how the new version is an experiment in teaching students how models are really used in ecology.

As in the original, part of Patchy Prairies asks students to try different restoration landscapes to see which are best at boosting the butterfly population. That makes for a very engaging lab as students draw different maps and root for the butterflies to survive (it's been one of our more popular labs in ecology and conservation courses). But we didn't think students were making enough connections between the lab and how conservation biologists actually use models.

In the new Patchy Prairies, we keep the same goal (save the butterflies through habitat restoration) but put the modeling front and center. Our Automator gives students a simple way to run models multiple times and check whether results change as they manipulate different parameters. Rather than simply asking "what habitat configuration is best?", we also let them ask "what butterfly behavior is most important for us to study further in order to pick the best configuration?". It's a higher-level question, but we hope we've managed to pose it in a way that beginning ecology students can grapple with. For me, this is a re-expression of one of the original philosophies behind EcoBeaker - giving non-programming students the ability to play with ecological models.

Patchy Prairies is in beta this spring. We'd love for you to try it out and send us your feedback. Just get in touch and we'll be happy to give you access.

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