PS 74-127 - Exploring interactive approaches to teaching mathematical modelling in ecology: Adventures in the Wolfram Cloud

Friday, August 11, 2017
Exhibit Hall, Oregon Convention Center
Lewis J Bartlett1,2 and Mike Boots2, (1)Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, (2)Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley

Quantitative skills are a fundamental part of ecology teaching, but students often struggle to reconcile concepts around mathematical modelling. As approaches to analytical modelling in theoretical ecology change with technological developments, so too should approaches to their teaching. The goal of such advances should be to open up teaching of theoretical biology to students who may previously have lacked the skillset necessary to make such topics accessible.

We trialled the deployment of interactive web content in teaching mathematical modelling of infectious disease, with the goal of students comfortably linking ordinary differential equation (ODE) systems to graphical outcomes. Our cohort was principally junior-year pre-med students majoring in Integrative Biology, fulfilling their ecology requirement. This approach utilised Wolfram Cloud, a specialist cloud computing platform which has only recently become feasible in its application.


This poster reviews the success, challenges, and future potential of these kinds of approaches in teaching quantitative ecology. We discuss alternative innovations across the mathematical software sphere and their potential application to teaching, and draw on best practise from other quantitative fields.

Student feedback indicates that these new developments in technological capacity can improve accessibility of abstract mathematical ecology. However challenges still remain in overcoming limitations in mathematical training traditionally necessary to understand ecological modelling. We hope to stimulate conversation in deploying innovations in teaching quantitative methods, with emphasis on ease of development. We believe these advances in communicating theoretical biology may allow teachers to, where desirable, bypass a need for advanced calculus training, in favour of interpretive literacy / ‘mathematical intuition’.

We also highlight the outreach and media potential of these tools in better communicating theoretical research. Easy and affordable interactive visualisation of theoretical ecology has great potential in wider education including high school and public scientific engagement, which could be driven by its deployment in university teaching.