Modeling has become an important tool in the study and management of ecological systems. Modeling can be used to understand ecosystem functioning, by allowing us to visualize how species are influenced by each other and by abiotic conditions, and to make predictions on how ecosystems might change in response to human activities. Models can be used to generate hypotheses. Models allow detailed predictions to be made about the ultimate effects of disturbances to the system.
Qualitative conceptual models are typically drawn as diagrams that describe the relationships between components in an ecological community; they are used to communicates complex information about ecosystems using a symbolic language. By using appropriate conceptual models to teach about patterns in ecosystems, we hope students can better understand otherwise incomprehensible ideas about ecosystems; such as, how some actions in ecosystems result in otherwise unexpected consequences. Student-generated models can be used to help us perceive what students understand at different points during the course of the term about ecological concepts and interactions.
Through the course of a new NSF-funded science teacher education project, Teaching Ecological complexity, 5 teams of LTER educators and scientists are working with conceptual models to both convey understanding about ecological concepts and to collect data on the insights gained about ecological concepts while teachers participate in ecology research projects. Data obtained through teacher interviews, analysis of their “modeling notebooks”, and analysis of their essays written about their research projects is being used as evidence as to how conceptual modeling activities for teachers promotes a heightened understanding of ecosystem complexity. Teachers’ understanding of their research project as portrayed in their conceptual models is analyzed as to evidence of each of the following: Recognition of patterns, systems thinking, understanding of research process and of complexity.