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Playing with parameters in complex systems and simulating experiments to allow students to concentrate on the science

Playing with processes


Simulations can be a powerful tool in teaching and learning. Some processes are so complex that they are difficult to understand from static diagrams and equations. Simulations of those processes, however, can make dynamic interactions clearer. Going one step further and allowing learners to alter input parameters can help them understand how these processes react.

Counter-current multiplication in the nephron (image above) is a good example of this which we have simulated as a small model which runs in any browser and allows learners to explore the effects of loop length and various states of diuresis on urine concentration.

Pattern association memory (image below) simulates the process of learning and recalling associations between stimuli such as the sight of food and the taste of food which was taken one step further by Pavlov's dogs. As well as learning and recall, learners can simulate resilience of networks to damage.

Pattern Association

Simulating the experiment allows students to concentrate on the science

The laboratory work necessary to explore many scientific concepts and diagnostic techniques is too difficult, time-consuming, costly or dangerous for students. However, it is often the case that it is not the technique itself, but rather the science behind it and the interpretation of the results that is of greatest importance. Although it is obviously possible just to provide results to students, this can lead to a lack of ownership and thus engagement with the data. It also makes it difficult to explore sequential or iterative experiments where the results from one ‘run’ are used to decide what to do in the next.

With Mark Wormald from the Department of Biochemistry, we have adapted EnzLab (developed by University of York as part of the 90s TLTP initiative) and turned it into a single web page which provides all the ‘laboratory equipment’ and analysis tools necessary for a 3-5 hour practical on Michaelis-Menten Enzyme Dynamics for Biochemists.

Michaelis-Menten Enzyme Dynamics

At the end of Hilary term students in Biochemistry are asked to prepare a poster on one of the 17 practicals that they have done by that point. In the last two years, since the introduction of the new programme, we have had students opting to design their poster on this practical.