WallCology: Ecology Embedded Phenomenon

Developers: Tom Moher, Brian Uphoff, Darshan Bhatt, Brenda Lopez

Funding: NSF

For the past several years, EVL researchers have been developing and field-testing a simulation platform designed to support authentic science inquiry surrounding life science and population ecology. “Wallcology” situates students within a complex virtual ecosystem, where they may conduct empirical investigations. Multiple tablet computers running the simulation are attached to the walls of the classrooms and act as local portals (WallScopes) into a larger, imaginary space behind the wall filled with virtual fauna. The simulation runs continuously, concurrent with regular classroom day-to-day activities, but becomes the center of attention as students engage in collaborative inquiry activities, such as the building of field guides based on observations of phenomena or estimating populations.

Through the classroom WallScopes, students see a set of distinctive local virtual environments of pipes, plaster, lath, and simulated mobile creatures, along with display of local environmental conditions (temperature and humidity). The creatures, which vary in their morphologies, behaviors, and environmental preferences are free to move about the entire virtual ecosystem, and are only seen by students when they wander into an area made visible by a WallScope. Behavior is further impacted by human presence: built-in microphones on the WallScope computers monitor ambient volume levels, and the creatures skitter away when the level becomes too high. In the current version of WallCology, controls are limited to a “tagging” mechanism allowing students to use a stylus to “paint” colored dots on creatures for subsequent tracking and population estimation activities.

WallCology employs a client-server architectures. A Java-based application running on a remote serve manages the simulation of create movement among low-resolution “blocks” corresponding to WallScope-sized wall patches: the local client is responsible for animation of local movements within the WallScope blocks. The client application runs on conventional web browsers using the standard Flash plug-in.

In a pilot study, Spring 2007, WallCology was used as a component of an eight week population ecology unit in a seventh grade, urban middle school, science classroom. Five tablet computers attached to the classroom walls ran WallScope continuously during the unit. The pilot study focused on two learning goals: identification of species and the estimation of transient populations from multiple samples. The objective of the pilot study was to gain feedback on the adequacy of application features, the effectiveness of the instructional scaffolding that supported the inquiry activities in support of the learning goals, and the impact of the activity on learners’ attitudes toward the investigation process.

As a result of the pilot study findings, application enhancements and design revisions are being incorporated into WallCology for future use. Long-term project goals include application extensions to address adaptation and evolution, making WallCology a platform to be used to support learning progressions in ecology with semester - or year-long cirricula.

Email: moher@uic.edu

Date: May 1, 2006 - Ongoing
Still from Wallcology - B. Uphoff, EVL

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