Institute of Marine Ecology, The University of Sydney
IntroductionThis is an interesting product to review because it is likely that different types of people will react to it in rather different ways. Some will, I have noticed, dismiss it out of hand because "there's no substitute for studying ecology in the real world". Others will be impressed by what is, in many ways a sophisticated and flexible application with a lot of potential for making theoretical classes in ecology more interesting. Yet others may get so intrigued in trying to work out how the underlying model itself works that they get diverted from the ecological concepts that it is trying to impart.
Overview of EcoBeakerThe Program
EcoBeaker calls itself "an ecological simulation program". It is a dynamic program which cycles through a series of time-steps. During each time-step various changes occur and the results of those changes are presented. The main visual presentation is a window containing a grid, representing a location, made up of small squares, all of the same size. The squares take on different colours to represent different objects within the location. Such objects are either habitats or instances of various species. So, the grid might represent an area with patches of habitats such as prairie (brown) and grassland (green) with individual butterflies (blue) moving around the area.
Another small window, called the Control Panel, has buttons to start and stop (pause) the passage of time, to sample objects and to reset the "situation". A situation represents a particular ecological scenario and is stored in a file. 14 situations are provided, and these are used in 12 laboratories. Each laboratory has a chapter devoted to it in the "Laboratory Guide" part of the manual.
Some situations also have a graph window to plot the population of different species over time. A Species window provides a key to the objects represented by the different colours.
Behaviour of Objects
EcoBeaker provides great flexibility. Although each situation is carefully set up to illustrate the points in the relevant laboratory, any feature of the situation may be altered. Object types may be added or deleted, different settlement and action procedures may be selected and parameter values may be changed. The resulting amended situations may be saved as files and it is also possible to create completely new situations.
Communication and Assistance
Version 1.0 is for Macintosh only (manual $US19.95 program $US15.00; site licenses available). Version 2.0 due out in spring (Northern) 1997 will also be available for Windows.
Manual Setting of Parameters and Runs
This drawback is being addressed in Version 2.0 by the addition of a macro language for controlling runs. The macro language can be used to set parameter values and to repeat runs. This would clearly be very useful for setting up laboratories. Not only would it be convenient but it would also give the trainer more control over what goes on in the laboratory.
Simulation in Education
ConclusionsI think EcoBeaker is very good. It is a cleverly constructed piece of software which is easy and fun to use and very instructive. It is flexible and extensible and comes provided with a variety of scenarios for examining aspects of ecological theory and practice. The documentation is well-written and very readable. There are clear instructions for all the laboratories and a thorough user manual for the software itself. EcoBeaker is designed for use in a computer laboratory. Given a laptop (Macintosh only until Version 2 arrives) connected to a projector, it could also be very useful in the lecture theatre.
UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997
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