WID Course Integrates Hands-On Computation with Wildlife Conservation

While most students on campus prepped for semester exams, a small class approached the end of the year a bit differently — by presenting video games and simulations.

The goal: To use computers and real-world data to solve real-world conservation problems such as managing bird and turtle habitats, optimizing biofuel and soybean production and balancing multiple stakeholders’ needs during land development.

Michael Ferris, WID researcher and professor of computer sciences who taught the course with postdocs Ben Shapiro and Steve Wangen, said the class reflects the institute’s interdisciplinary culture by veering away from the “lecture style” of teaching.

“What we’ve really learned is that the value of the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts,” Ferris said, pointing out that the largest benefit of the class was the diversity of perspectives in it.

The small group of undergraduate and graduate students came from a variety of fields, including mathematics, economics, computer science, ecology and industrial engineering. Throughout the semester, they were grouped with field scientists, who provided data to build models upon. Using software called Net Logo, the groups created “agent-based modeling simulations,” or scenarios that tracked the actions and consequences of multiple entities such as animals, companies and conservation groups. These games and simulations allowed the class and researchers to look at previously unexplored scenarios and situations that have been too complex to examine without the help of computer modeling.

“There’s a bunch of interactions and potential conflicts among agents, entities and players in the games. It’s the clashing of these players that will lead to a new understanding of how complex systems evolve over time.”

— Michael Ferris

“There’s a bunch of interactions and potential conflicts among agents, entities and players in the games,” Ferris said. “It’s the clashing of these players that will lead to a new understanding of how complex systems evolve over time.”

Trails Forward, an educational game developed by a research group at WID and its partner the Morgridge Institute for Research, served as the inspiration for the class, since many of the smaller simulations could be adapted for the larger game, he said.

Anna Pidgeon, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology, provided students with information about American woodcock habitat needs and population trends for the Great Lakes region. She asked students to develop a model for Wisconsin’s Vilas County — the area that Trails Forward is based on — that balanced the interests of conservation groups and timber companies.

“The potential is great,” Pidgeon said, confirming that the in-class research can help yield insights into the actions of groups and companies that change land cover. “We’re needing to understand more deeply the discoveries, assumptions and constraints even more now due to the number of conflicting interests surrounding use of natural resources held by different groups.”

Another group assessed what would happen if soybean producers allocated various acres of land for bee foraging in addition to their crops. Humorously titled, “The Means to More Beans,” the project’s preliminary findings suggested that bees could boost crop yields in a way that’s more profitable than if the entire area was limited to just growing soybeans.

Jennifer Stenglein, a Ph.D. student in wildlife ecology, said her involvement in the soybean simulation furthered her doctoral research in managing wolf populations in Wisconsin.

“The take-home message is that this interdisciplinary work played out nicely in this class,” Stenglein said. “The suite of skills taught are useful in answering ecological questions that ecologists don’t typically draw on.”

She said a part of the experience was finding ways to communicate and collaborate, despite students’ different backgrounds — a skillset that more students can gain in the fall when the course is taught again.

The class will be offered fall 2012 in conjunction with a new NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in conservation. UW-Madison students interested in the course can sign up through the listing “CS 699” with Ferris.

Marianne English