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By Dave Volek

I'll just let visitors to Dave Volek's Food Chain a little bit into my head.

If you have been to other parts of my website, you will know that I believe in simulations as valuable learning tools. In my opinion, success in a simulation—where a student has to apply knowledge to resolve a challenge—is a much better indicator of student's true abilities than traditional course testing for knowledge.

I also believe a simulation enhances the classroom experience. A high school student need only spend only a half hour with Food Chain to better understand the biology principles of tropic levels, bioenergy, biomass, carrying capacity, and wildlife population changes.

But I also believe that some high school and college students will welcome a bigger challenge than just mastering material to pass an exam. Trying to find success in Food Chain will challenge their thinking in ways traditional education cannot. There is great opportunity for these students to work together, sharing insights and ideas to discover the many relationships in Food Chain—and then try to apply their newly acquired knowledge to find success in the Food Chain Quests to get their name in the Food Chain Hall of Fame.

I also believe that many reasonably well educated workers are not being stimulated enough in their workplaces. I am hoping that Food Chain gives them some practice to keep and enhance their critical thinking skills—for one never knows when these skills will be called for.

But enough of my educational philosophy. Let's talk about Food Chain itself.

The inspiration came from a few pages of a Grade 11 biology textbook that showed the biomass and bioenergy relationships of several ecosystems. The textbook's questions to reinforce these important concepts only required some simple math to solve the problems. An intelligent student would find this math quite easy; a struggling student might not see the point to these calculations, only wanting to memorize the technique well enough to pass the test. I thought: “There's a lot more math that can be done with this activity to challenge and stimulate Grade 11 students.” Thus the idea of Food Chain was born.

Food Chain is essentially a mathematical model that defines how the three tropic levels—grass, mouse, and fox—interact within a grassland ecosystem. This simulation produces a quantitative depiction of how these three tropic levels will change as the ecosystem undergoes its natural change. For example, if the mouse population increases, this makes more food available for foxes, so the fox numbers should also increase. But an increase in mouse population will put more pressure on the mouse food supply (the grass seeds), thus possibly creating a food shortage for the mice. So how does the population of mice really change with these two conflicting natural forces? The students will have do some study, analysis, and critical thinking to figure which will be the stronger biological force. If the students stay with the simulation long enough, they should see certain trends at different populations for grass, mice, and fox. While probably being too simplistic for a real grasslands ecosystem, the mathematical model created for Food Chain is a believable simulation for most biology students that should attain a certain degree of engagement.

The mathematical relationships that built Food Chain are all within the math skills of Grade 11 students: the model uses only proportions, straight lines, and square root functions. There are no logarithms, trigonometry, or calculus to define any of the relationships.

In any correlation I have created, there is always some qualitative scientific logic that formulates that correlation.

However, this website provides very little direct insight into these mathematical relationships. As the readers study the Food Chain Science, they will find expressions such “a certain percentage” or “certain ratio” with no hint of what that number could be or its exact function. Why would I leave students to use this simulation with so few facts?

It's because I want students to discover these relationships for themselves! They are free to observe and experiment with the simulation to determine the mathematical relationships I have sent up. Some of these relationships will be easy to discover; others will take some creative thinking to figure out how to obtain. Some discovered relationships will open the door to other relationships that were not readily apparent. Some discovered relationships will be quite useful to enter the Food Chain Hall of Fame; others will not contribute much to this goal. And I anticipate that some budding scientists will find useful mathematical and statistical relationships that are not part of original mathematical model.

So if a student wants to know how fast a grass seedling turn into a tiller, how many seeds a mouse pup requires each month, or how mouse density affects fox reproduction rates, he or she will have to observe and work with the data to find the correlations I have created.

Undoubtedly, most educators will feel that high school students are not capable of this level of critical thinking. I guess we are soon going to find out.

Students looking to be entertained by Food Chain will be disappointed. I did not design Food Chain for entertainment for two reasons. The first is rather practical: I don't have the funds to give the simulation the graphics and dynamics typical of computer games. Second—and more important—entertainment is not necessary to my goal to provide a great challenge for ambitious biology students to think critically about the natural forces such as equilibriums, cycles, and ramifications of changes. The challenges are clearly there even though the bells and whistles are clearly not.

I know some education purists would disapprove of the advertising I have placed in Food Chain. I should make it clear that I am not independently wealthy: I need to work at an occupation to earn a modest living. And even if Food Chain does indeed become popular, I can't see the education profession wanting to hire me to create further simulations for biology, chemistry, and physics. I need a financial signal of some kind to know whether to put my time, energy, and limited resources to similar simulations for high school sciences—or to move my creative spirit and out-of-the-box thinking to somewhere else.

If you like Food Chain, tell your friends, colleagues, teachers, and school boards. We shall soon see if developing science simulations is part of my full time future. I certainly have other ideas to engage high school students at this level of thinking.

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