Students Use Coding to Mimic Biological Simulations in Nature


For the past few weeks Jason Cochrane’s Honors Biology students have been coding to complete their final ecology unit.

This unusual method of learning involves a computer program named Starlogo Nova, which makes coding more simple by turning lines of text into blocks that can be fitted together in a workspace to make a final product.

In order to combine ecology and computer science, students are making a simulation of different animal populations by monitoring their diet and reproduction to mimic the growth of the population in the real world.

Sophomores Killian Ward and Ben Hildebrand chose to simulate the Sumatran Orangutan for their unit project.

Before getting to work on the computer program Ward and Hildebrand gathered somIMG_4811e information about their species of Orangutan, including their average lifetime, how often they reproduce and what they eat.

“We are trying to make [their real environment] and show how the Sumatran Oran
gutan’s population is shooting down and how they might be extinct in 50 years,” Ward said.

Some ideas that are easy to understand outside of a computer can be difficult to create inside of one. The most challenging simulation to code for is the concept of time, which involves creating a clock for the program. Producing a clock is so challenging because, in order to do it, the programmer has to first insert the program’s version of a clock, which counts five times faster than a normal clock. To create a normal counting clock, students had to use code that divided the computer clock by five, and go from there.

“Coding the time [involves] a lot of work that’s for sure,” Ward said. “You have to make different traits in the world section [of Starlogo Nova] and then you have to make a counter for the time and a couple of other pieces of code.”

The simple yet complex nature of the program gave Ward and his classmates a challenge, but at the same time it resulted in the creation of many different versions of the same idea throughout the class.

“I like how the project gives us a lot more freedom in what we do and it shows us how to create. You can [make] your project creative in your own way,” Ward said.

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