For students of evolution, ecology, and environmental science, it is imperative to understand the "Tragedy of the Commons". Preventing such tragedies is the key to achieving sustainability, and understanding the role that "commons collapses" have played in the evolution of communities is an important area of emerging ecological research. Beyond the usual lecture stories employed by instructors to illustrate the Tragedy of the Commons, how can we provide students with an ecologically-realistic means of exploring this phenomenon? Our answer is The Evolution of Sustainable Use, a free web-based teaching tool. The Evolution of Sustainable Use is a Flash-based game designed to be played by two to eight students in a classroom setting. Students act as fishers sharing a fishery, and must make decisions about how to exploit their common resource. Players have the potential to over-exploit or under-exploit their fishery, both of which can cause their fishing village to fail. Playing the game allows students to discover the Tragedy of the Commons first hand, and to experiment with different approaches to regulating a limited resource. The game empowers students to answer questions about population growth, predation, cooperation, and sustainable exploitation through an inquiry-based process.
For the past three years, The Evolution of Sustainable Use has been used to teach sustainability within a non-majors ecology course at Pratt Institute. As an elite art and design school, Pratt is a unique environment in which to field test educational tools aimed at non-major students; Pratt students arrive in the ecology classroom with extremely heterogenous backgrounds in science, and tend to prefer visual and experiential learning over more traditional narrative approaches to teaching. The Evolution of Sustainable Use has proven to be an effective tool for allowing students to construct their own understanding of how human exploitation of wild populations can lead to dramatic resource collapses. Through their own experiments with this simulation tool, students have expanded their understanding of basic population ecology, the vulnerable nature of ecosystem services, and how to apply principles of ecological sustainability to regulatory policies.