The LESEM Lab welcomes three new undergraduate research assistants -- Noah Hagen, Charlie Labuzzetta, and Cassaundra Runyan -- and Brandon Silker back to the lab for the summer. Noah and Charlie are working on PEWI. Cassaundra and Brandon are working on STRIPS. Welcome aboard crew! Read more about Welcome new undergrad research assistants
I’m a programmer on PEWI, a simple web-based learning tool designed to help people understand human-landscape interactions and ecosystem service tradeoffs (see figure below). One day, while working on PEWI’s code, I got pretty curious about whether there were other, similar tools out there. Also, being somewhat competitive by nature, I wondered what ‘the other groups’ were doing. I figured creating watershed tools is probably the vocation of a few, with groups working in this area just a small subset of the scientists and stakeholders interested in the impacts of human decisions on the environment. You can imagine my surprise when I set out to find a few oases in the software desert and, instead, found myself inundated with applications. The good news is that, among the flood of wonderful tools, PEWI still holds a unique place. Here are the results of my exploration.
While a plethora of tools are out there, I found five main tools that compare to PEWI in their intent and usability. These include Model My Watershed, Pimp Your Landscape, Rock Your Watershed!, Smartscape, and Watershed Conservation Screening Tool. I spent time learning to use each of them, emailing their developers, and reading model documentation, news releases, archived website snapshots, and published literature. I looked into underlying science; educational use, especially as a curriculum element; and the many facets of the programs’ front ends. Again, as a competitive person, I also spent an inordinate amount of time working my way up the leader boards for the tools that have them, probably to the chagrin of middle schoolers everywhere.
I found that the applications could be quickly divided into two obvious groups: those implemented within a Google Maps interface (Model My Watershed, Smartscape, Watershed Conservation Screening Tool) and those, like PEWI, that relied on homemade graphics (Pimp Your Landscape, Rock Your Watershed!). The more realistic looking programs were notably less game-like, but did provide feedback that felt instantly credible when compared to the graphics of the game-oriented programs. There was a great measure of overlap between inputs and outputs across the programs with the maximum number of output indicators being 10 while input land types coupled with conservation options generally allowed for 15 to 20 distinct combinations. In terms of learning curves, orientation time ranged between 5 and 45 minutes. You can find my entire white paper comparing the applications here.
Conducting this investigation and writing up the results helped me better understand PEWI’s niche. While its cartoon style may hinder its authority, I found that its scientific buttressing is on par with or exceeding all of the other tools I examined. PEWI has a unique position between totally realistic and totally game like, and has an amazing potential for guiding learning and achieving specific educational goals that just isn’t present in other tools. On the other hand, PEWI is lacking features including urban land use options, a high level customization of conservation practices, and outputs such as those regarding pollinators and economic effects. While PEWI certainly outperforms many of the programs in educational outreach, some have more aggressive initiatives and show there is plenty of opportunity to get PEWI into the hands of those who stand to benefit from its lessons.
Overall, though, for all of these tools there is the question of ‘staying afloat,’ which really is about staying relevant. Even with all of the fantastic and diverse features to be found across these watershed programs, the tools left me hoping for a feeling of forward progress or some electricity in the air around their development. If PEWI continues evolving, especially in expanding its public reach and providing a tool for immediate integration of new science, then it truly will provide something entirely relevant and special. Then, in 3, 5, or 10 years, some unsuspecting undergraduate like myself will sit down on the first day of summer and find a project that is changing both minds and ecosystems.
Noah Hagen is an undergraduate physics major at Iowa State University. He spent the summer of 2016 finalizing the code for PEWI v2 and developing the framework and code for PEWI v3. Stay tuned and you’ll see all of Noah’s amazing work: we expect to release PEWI v3 in the spring of 2017.
Last summer, I was lucky to be involved in Iowa State University’s Office of Precollegiate Programs for Talented and Gifted (OPPTAG) Summer Exploration Program. The Exploration Program offers students entering grades 8-12 the opportunity to discover new and exciting areas of study not traditionally emphasized in school curriculums. During the week-long program, students are fully immersed in their chosen study, working from 8:30 am to 4 pm, with an additional hour of homework each night. Though there is certainly time for meeting new friends and fun evening activities, the students’ primary focus is academics.
As an instructor, I chose to design and teach a course called, “Sustainable Science: The Future of Food, Energy, and Water.” The main components of the course included: (1) defining and understanding the concept of sustainability; (2) learning and applying a systems approach to addressing complex, wicked problems; (3) gaining context with respect to food, energy, and water systems through hands-on activities and field trips to local sites (e.g., Ames Water Treatment Plant, Iowa State University Dairy Farm, Food at First Community Garden, BioCentury Research Farm); and (4) using critical-thinking, analytical, and synthesis skills to develop a hypothetical sustainable landscape using the newly released PEWI model.
Taking a step back, it may seem a bit unclear why a PhD student is spending valuable summer research hours working with middle and high school-aged students; after all these precious summer days are critical for completing field work, for progressing through research goals, and for catching up on that ever-growing reading list. But, teaching these young minds may be one of the most important things that I did last summer. It is these curious, inquisitive faces that are the future of our field, more importantly, of our planet – and it is critical to begin cultivating the passion, skills, and perseverance that will be required of these students to continue our journey toward a more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable future.
To create that excitement, which will encourage the perseverance to learn new skills, I incorporated techniques that allow students to take a more active role. We pursued learning avenues that allowed students the opportunity to retain information while tapping the diverse suite of strengths that each student brings to the classroom. For example, in my class students had little lecture and few readings, and when I did use lecture or readings to communicate material, the material was always reinforced with discussion and team-based activities (excellent opportunities for teaching others!). In addition, students actively practiced doing using PEWI; designing sustainable landscapes using the model allowed students to apply their knowledge in practice. By talking at students less and engaging in conversation and practice more, students took a more active and enthusiastic role in creating a learning environment that fostered their own development and success.
In addition to engaging young students using alternative teaching methods, there is also a deep need to encourage and facilitate the pursuit of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields in post-secondary students. As noted in this Science Magazine piece from 2012, we still are not doing a good enough job of ensuring the success of STEM students, particularly the underrepresented minority (women, racial, and ethnic minorities). In fact, less than half of the three million students who enter college with the intent of majoring in a STEM field graduate with a degree in STEM. Many of us in academia should rapidly recognize that a success rate, a grade, of less than 50% is not passing; we are failing at producing the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers required to ensure a sustainable future.
So, what can be done? Much like techniques for primary and secondary students, we may need to take a look outside of our normal lens and take advantage of underemphasized tools to ensure the success of our students. According to the Science article, ensuring that students have early access to research opportunities, demanding that introductory courses utilize active learning rather than passive learning (e.g., lectures where just 5% of material is retained), and requiring enrollment in STEM learning communities (opportunities for discussion and teaching peers) are possible steps to create a culture of success among STEM undergraduate students.
We need these young, brilliant minds in order to progress toward a more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable future. The success of our common future depends on their education – and we need to do better to make certain that the education that we are providing is not only rigorous, but engaging and exciting. Poet W.B. Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” So let’s light the fire!