Students often enter biology programs deficient in the math and computational skills that would enhance their attainment of a deeper understanding of the discipline. To address some of these concerns, I developed a series of spreadsheet simulation exercises that focus on some of the mathematical foundations of scientific inquiry and the benefits of mathematical modeling in understanding some of the fundamental concepts of ecology, including topics such as population growth, selection, competition, predation, and sustainability. In the example presented here, students collect data from a computer-generated study site and then use basic spreadsheet skills to calculate, graphically visualize, and compare sample means (± SE) to effectively discover why random and transect sampling are superior to biased sampling, and to explore the effects of sample size on the standard error of the mean. Pre- and post-exercise questionnaires suggest that spreadsheet models such as this one are effective in improving students' attainment of the target principles. Spreadsheet simulations can be used as a low-cost, easily accessible way to leverage technology to supplement lecture or laboratory content while fostering vital math and computer skills.
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Vol. 75 • No. 7