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Computer program coding enhances students’ biology learning

HIGHLANDS RANCH—Many people may not think of computer program coding and biology as being a likely fit for each other in the classroom. However, students are using their own code in Jason Cochrane’s biology classes at Mountain Vista High School to study why populations of local wildlife are declining.

Typically, computer modeling programs and simulations are used to enable students to learn about concepts that are too big or complex or simply take too much time to study in the real world. The problem is that most of these programs are prescriptive and do not allow students to have choice in the elements they want to study.

“These models can be restrictive in that the model may not use the exact parameters and situations the student is interested in reviewing,” said Sharon Combs, Douglas County School District’s Instructional Technology Designer, who led the classes in three days of coding. “The student is stuck using parameters and values that are predefined for them.”  

Instead of using a predefined model, Cochrane’s classes are programming their own models using a product called StarLogo Nova. The programming environment lets them create their own parameters, conditions and variables to test.

“The outcomes become more relevant because the student is in charge of the model specifics and are able to simulate conditions the student is most interested in studying,” said Combs.

For example, one group modeled a period of time for life and death, including a time frame to reach reproductive age, a mating season and measurement of the reproductive success of offspring. Other groups incorporated energy levels for food intake and used the amount of energy available to determine if reproduction was allowed. Students are even looking at the effect of human construction on the habitat of a species.

The idea to integrate the ability for biology students to code their own models came from last year’s Create Something Great conference, an annual think tank hosted by Douglas County School District, which brings together education leaders from across the country to explore and design innovative practices and solutions to prepare students for college, career and citizenship.

“Jason came to a Create Something Great session I taught last summer and we started talking about how we could integrate computer science into high school biology,” Combs said. “After doing a little research, I found the StarLogo Nova programming environment for models and simulations. Jason got back in touch with me when he was ready to try it and here we are.”

Before this experience, most of the students in Cochrane’s classes had not done any coding and were somewhat nervous about the project. They quickly became very enthusiastic for the level of research they were able to study, though.

“The amount of detailed research each team is pulling to accurately model their organism is much more extensive than I originally had anticipated,” said Cochrane. “I even had to cut back on some of my requirements due to the level of complexity they are trying to incorporate into their models. It has been fun to watch the students excel in their creative problem solving techniques.”

Combs believes this experience underscores how programming and computer science can be entrenched in just about any content area a student studies.

“While computer program coding and biology are not usually associated with each other, this experience underscored how important learning computer coding is for just about any content a student is investigating,” she said.

May 11, 2016 | By CSilberman | Category: ITS, World Class Education

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