Rural System's

Experiences With Microcomputers in University Wildlife Conservation Education

Robert H. Giles, Jr.

Abstract

The author comments on 30 years of experience in using computer-aided instruction in a natural resource field, wildlife management. He describes early main-frame use, the high cost of transition to changing hardware, the orientation he has taken in developing programs, the limitations he has found in using computer units in his classes, and the difficulties experienced in evaluating student outcomes or behavioral changes. Extensive student comments suggest the potentials of computer-aided instruction in natural resource management. (A paper rejected for publication in 1994)

I have used computer-based educational units in wildlife education since 1965. Until 7 years ago these were all operated from a university mainframe computer. The first units which I developed used punched computer cards as the method for students to make entries of their choices of data to the computer. Later I used a deck of pre-punched cards to avoid the students' frustration with key-punch errors and the costs resulting from the errors. Improvements in local hardware systems shortened the time required for students to submit a set of "playing cards" their decisions make within an educational unit ) and to get a paper copy of answers. Those improvements reduced the time needed from a day to a few minutes.

The increased availability of terminals, personal computers, and the demise of punched-card sup port within the past few years(1992-1994) has required radical and costly changes in my programs. The mainframe units never had the needed checking and error-writing code. (Often more than the original code.) "User-friendly" and making the computers "idiot-proof" were new phrases and objectives that were never achieved. It was almost essential to make the programs easily used with few opportunities even for simple mistakes or oversights. Other people have reported on the great importance of properly operating equipment if it is to be used effectively in the educational experience.

Rapidly changing hardware in the university had required me to change software at a time when local funds to support such changes were minimal. I had developed a TV program which, when used on computers, introduced the major computer unit to students and instructions for how to use it. That TV program, along with software, is now discarded because the operations have changed so much.

Increasingly, microcomputers have become available. I have subsequently shifted work to them, re-programmed many previous units, and now use them extensively in a graduate and undergraduate class in wildlife management.

Orientation

Recently (1993) I have sought to limit my development of units in the first stages to:

1.Educational units not easily done in written, lecture, or conventional form.

2.Units in which there is no set answer but a correct answer based on the way a student describes a project (e.g., rather than assigning a problem area size, students enter the size of tracts in which they are most familiar or for which there is some relevance to them).

3.Units that need random variation in natural events to help students learn about decision making in the face of such variability.

4.Computer units that are general and about which many questions can be asked based on the objectives of a course or the knowledge level of the students.

5.Units that have more than 10 variables or have complex equations which are very tedious to calculate, those with equations or responses prone to data-entry error, or those that are highly interactive.

6. Units that have the potential for being related to each other, e.g., the output of one being used as input to another, and used as modules to a larger system.

I have developed 3 3.5 inch"discs with 300 units on them. The major categories are in Table 1. The list demonstrates only one approach to developing and using the microcomputer and units within one natural resource field.

My students know I have resisted using microcomputers for years because I believed (and still do, 1994)) that wildlife resource system managers will tend to collapse and simplify their enormously complex problems to fit the size of the computer. Rather than allowing the power of the advanced machines and advanced, large scale models to be applied to the resource management problems of the day, I fear oversimplification. This will be done, I hypothesize, but the capacity and speed of the modern computers now relieve my concern. Now that computers have the power to overcome such limitations, and the needs increase for more sophisticated, inclusive systems, the potential users are retreating to the scant power that has already been available for 3 decades.

Lack of funding and staff support, and hardware decisions made at other levels have prevailed. I have continued to program units to attempt to help teach points within my classes. The microcomputer is a useful tool to assist students in understanding the parts of problems and their solutions, and to acquaint them with the potentials of creating and working with larger computer systems. If nothing else, programs can demonstrate counter-intuitive events that may impart a new sense of conservatism or caution in making managerial decisions without at least trying to see through most of the important consequences.

Limitations

The costs of developing computer programs as educational units are high, but so is all high-quality education -- even the superior lecture. The major educational issue, I perceive, is not cost but cost-effectiveness. "How many units of pre-stated, desired changed behavior occur per unit invested?" The evaluations are very difficult but a modicum of insight into "goodness" can be achieved. (Why should we demand better evaluation of this educational medium than we do or is possible of others?) Because of the dynamic and diverse motives of the programs, it may be impossible to study them all since a measure will almost always be an expression of it relative to the cost-effectiveness of a previous and outmoded program.

The computerized education units are not fool-proof. There is always in every unit a new way to enter data, configure and operate the machine, or for students to read and understand an instruction - either erroneously or in some way that no learning whatsoever occurs. The permutations of machine operation, program, instruction, and response-entry events are very large. The number is probably positively correlated with the errors that arise among conventional problem solvers. There may be no way to solve this problem. Students generally are understanding about the difficulties, but assistance from the instructor or an assistant, I think, must be readily available. In a large class, if there is any way to misinterpret an instruction or a computer response, it will be found.

Another problem is grading. If each use of a program, a run, is unique, then how may its correctness be judged? I encourage the students to try various combinations or to try to find where failures maybe encountered in the system reflected in the program. Such activity can produce "bad" results. I have used rates of improvement in "plays" of an environmental situation, a "game" against nature. A perfect score is computed, a student's score at the end of play, and then the difference. The closer to zero, the better the individual performance.

Emphasis on getting a good score is not totally satisfactory for, as noted above, many students often work for a score and pass up the opportunity for creatively configuring inputs or getting insightful results. Many will answer quickly a question by using the computer unit, then say "is that all there is to it?" Such comments, I must admit are painful to the instructor and programmer when the program has taken many hours to develop.

Costs of computer operation, on the surface, have decreased. The costs are for time and space. All engineering students at this university and several others are required to have a personal computer. Wildlife management students are not required to have such equipment, though it is presently within economic reach of most students, especially in light of large-purchase contracts, payment policies, and social pressures, and in my view, professional and educational need.

We have a classroom in which there are 30 , micro-computers available. Another room with 200 units is within a 10-minute walk and many students now have their own computers. Physical facilities are not limiting now as they once were. They may become limiting if maintenance and security are not provided. Quality software is needed. I believe that my orientation is appropriate to the problems of our field. While I have developed one program to ask wildlife- and ecology-related questions, give answers, and allow students to self-score their estimates of how well they know the answer, I do not think this is an efficient use of limited programming time. It can be handled better in a question and covered-answer text. Nevertheless, for some students, computer units are more "fun"; they are color and sound enhanced, scoring is automated, and some include a trivial (but at least some) activity. Activity, perhaps of this type but probably more complex, is said to be an important part of teaching-learning experiences.

Many of the units are designed to be used in life-after-school. They are demonstrated in class, students are allowed to ask questions, idiosyncrasies are noted, and representative uses are made. Within a 1-hour class period 4-6 such units can be demonstrated (out of the 300 available There is not time in normal class periods or during assignments to use them all. The active students, however, find time and will probably use them later. (Limited correspondence has confirmed that this occurs.) An inability or unwillingness for parents, teachers, or students to evaluate other educational media has rarely slowed their use or adoption. One means used for many years is that of student opinion or the voluntary testimonial. I have obtained many such statements (Table 2). Over the past years, I have responded to the positive comments that have encouraged me to continue with this educational medium. It is "unfair," perhaps irrational, to ignore the negative ones. I count success wherever I think I find it. I do attempt to "fix" programs where negative comments turn out to be useful. I am aware that there are people without computer experience (national data not withstanding), students with a bad (not neutral) attitude toward computers themselves (all non-game uses), and many merely tolerant. The promise of the microcomputer will be as illusive for them as the wisdom of the sonnets or the world's window offered by the calculus. Computer integrated with realistic situations displayed in hypermedia, the microcomputers in education still holds for me exciting, almost unlimited promise for educating future wildlife resource managers and scientists.

Table 1. Categories of 300 BASIC computer programs used in computer-aided instruction in wildlife resource management.

Table 2. Quotes from evaluations made after students used a computer educational unit (Waterloo) that asked them to win by stabilizing a shrimp population in a coastal estuary.

At times it appeared that the student's mind was the toy that the computer was playing with; trying to develop the counterintuitive thinking process ...

Though the complexities of environmental. issues have been stresses throughout the course, I was still quite surprised at the synergistic relationships between the decisions and the number of decision combinations.

Deer hunting, to which I have been violently opposed for many years, has been demonstrated to be a valuable tool, much to my surprise.

In the past, my views about man and the condition of the environment have led me to believe that the best policies were those which decreased man's interference with natural systems. Waterloo has taught me that effective, active, planned involvement may be our last hope for the future.

It was surprising to me how the slightest change in choices can bring about such a vast and abrupt difference in computational results.

...as in most learning experiences, what was learned was how little I knew. I was able to see how steps might be taken to resolve certain problems mentioned in the textbook.

I realized that people who have greater knowledge of ecology and other areas can make more intelligent decisions, thus achieving the objective more quickly.

I have never had it make so clear to me the extent of interactions in nature. This unit illustrated two things to me: first, how ill-advised, past decisions have resulted in the present condition of the environment and, second, the urgent need for the best possible decisions immediately in order to protest and improve the environment.

... by far one of the most intriguing, yet frustrating games that I have ever played. The major frustration was that as one objective was achieved, counter problems occurred in other areas.

... for the first time I got a really close understanding of how all ecological variables relate to one another and how the magnitude and extent of certain manipulations affect the entire system.

If one considers the implications of the fact that our team of four relatively intelligent, environmentally sensitive students (with the assistance of a computer) were unsuccessful in their efforts to stabilize the loss of land in an estuary, it is awesome to speculate on the degree of knowledge and sophistication that must be possessed by the future decision maker.

The one thing I did find out was that I'm not ready to become a planner anytime soon!!

I must admit, that when I first started running the trials I was somewhat apathetic about it. I now realize the purpose of the whole game, and I am glad that I participated in it. The game has inspired me enough to take a course in computer programming.

This game served to broaden my outlook on the usefulness of computer programming to help solve management problems. I never stopped to realize how many factors must be taken into consideration to come up with a reasonable management program, one which will best serve the over-all picture for the longest time feasible.

The completion of the second run established a direction from the arbitrary first trial. It was then I realized the point at which to establish goals. Fortunately the computer was programmed to give a hand to the bewildered! This unit taught me not to dismiss seemingly extraneous data.

To me, the most important thing to gain from the game is that people involved in projects that affect the environment must work in conjunction with many persons in various areas; this is to insure the best outcome for the whole environment. It took us quite awhile to see the relationships that were affecting the environment and to find the right solutions for reaching stability. If it was this hard for us using the computer - it seems impossible to make such decisions without it!

When I first thought about watershed management it appeared to be a simple task. After this week of computer programming on this subject I have changed my mind. It seems that you cannot make a decision without affecting another decision.

... it made me aware of, besides the interactions, is the totality of interactions necessary. It actually forces you to make environmental decisions you don't like for the good of the system.

Waterloo is an extremely efficient teaching tool. Not only does it teach, but it also requires study and understanding while holding the interest of the user. The user is interested because he does not feel comfortable at stopping anything short of what he feels his objectives should be.It is fascinating to be placed in a situation, or with the model, where one is able to try to manage the environment while not having to suffer the risks or consequences which would normally be experienced in real life.

One quickly learns that a holistic approach is far better than trying one thing at a time as you move sequentially from problem to problem. You look for the sensitive part and this is where you strike.


Perhaps you will share ideas with me about some of the topic(s) above .

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Robert H. Giles, Jr.
Februrary 7, 2007