COS 104-8 - Extendsim rainforest simulation model: An interactive learning tool for middle-school children

Thursday, August 11, 2011: 4:00 PM
Ballroom B, Austin Convention Center
Ann E. Russell, Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Iowa State University, Ames, IA

In K-16 biology education, approaches that emphasize memorization of facts often do not provide a way for students to master integrative concepts of processes and their consequences. For example, despite that most college students memorize many facts about photosynthesis, students in one study could not identify the source of the huge mass of a mature tree; 92% of students could not reason that nearly all of the dry mass was carbon which came from the atmosphere. Principle-based reasoning may be hampered by a lack of connection between ecological concepts and mathematical foundations. Also, some topics are not very amenable to hands-on activities in the classroom, such that students are deprived of the exciting, creative, and playful parts of science that come with experimentation and discovery. The beauty of a simulation modeling environment is that students can directly examine the mathematical bases of ecological concepts. Modeling also allows students to explore ideas and to experiment in situations where it is otherwise impractical. My goal was to integrate data from our basic research on carbon cycling in a tropical rainforest, and other published data, to develop a model that allows middle-school children to explore concepts in ecosystem processes from a quantitative perspective.

Results/Conclusions We developed an animated, game-like, interactive simulation model of tropical rainforest carbon cycling using the Demo version of ExtendSim software (ImagineThat, Inc). The model is fully bi-lingual (English and Spanish) and contains an introductory video, geared for people with no modeling experience, and an accompanying tutorial-like ‘lesson pane.’ The model contains four ‘levels’ which represent increasing complexity of the model, and of reasoning required by the student. There are three adjustable state variables (sunlight, water, and nutrients). In Level 4, land-use type (forest or pasture) is also adjustable. Students can address ‘What if’ sorts of questions by running the model in an experimental mode. Storages and fluxes are animated with icons to provide a visual sense of the quantitative results. Thus students may grasp concepts by experimenting with control variables without delving into the mathematical content. Advanced learners may use the data captured in spreadsheet and graphic forms to compare model output as they vary the state variables. These data can be used to test hypotheses about the effects of the experimental manipulations, as in the ‘Fairchild Challenge’ in which >1250 students in Miami-Dade County (FL) participated in the modeling activities ( The model is accessible for free at

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