Zachary Neal

College of Social Science; Associate Professor

Building a Social Simulation Makerspace

Zachary Neal will build a “makerspace” of computers and software to help undergraduate and graduate students develop, test, and showcase agent-based simulation models of social phenomena. The use of the space will be paired with PSY493W and PSY992, which are currently under development in the Hub Faculty Fellow program.

Project Solution:

This proposal accompanies the development of two new courses focused on agent-based social simulation models: PSY493W, a writing-intensive undergraduate course, and PSY992, a graduate seminar with a focus on mentorship and team model building. These new courses are being developed as part of the Hub Faculty Fellow program, and are designed to help students at both levels understand the role that simulation can play in social science research, build skills in model building and coding, and provide experience with science communication by sharing the models with non-academic audiences. These primary learning outcomes will be assessed via instructor interaction with students one-on-one and in model building teams, as well as via observation of model building teams’ presentation of their developed models with other audiences. These courses also have secondary learning outcomes: in PSY493W students will gain experience with both technical writing as they narratively describe their model code, and with non-academic writing, as they narratively describe their models for lay audiences; in PSY992 students will gain experience mentoring junior colleagues and leading model building teams.

To achieve these learning outcomes, the course activities require some technological infrastructure. Students’ access to and use of the social simulation makerspace is expected to play a central role in their ability to achieve the learning outcomes above, facilitating their development of content knowledge not only about social science phenomena being simulated, but also their conceptual understanding of and comfort with simulation as a research tool.

Developing and testing agent-based social simulations requires access to a computer with a high-performance processor and the use of specialized software (in this case, NetLogo will be used). Additionally, learning how to build social simulation models is best achieved through a workshop-style classroom arrangement in which students build models collaboratively in class, which requires access to a computer and appropriate software in the classroom. All of these technology requirements can impose additional costs on students beyond tuition, and therefore can reduce the access of some qualified students to the course and its content. This project will ensure all students have access to (a) laptop computers for collaborative in-class model building, and (b) high-performance desktop computers in a simulation makerspace for out-of-class model building and testing.

In addition to providing students with the necessary technological resources, the makerspace itself is intended to provide an inclusive environment where students can schedule group meetings, work individually on their projects, and demonstrate their models for others. To maximize the environment’s inclusivity, it will be established in a non-classroom space (Psychology 15A, see below), and students will have access via a lockbox at any time the Psychology Building is open. This will ensure that students whose work schedules or family responsibilities make it impractical to work during typical M-F 9-5 periods will still have access to the necessary technological and spatial resources to develop competency in social simulation and model building.

Student-student collaboration is a central part of the courses because students are expected to work in groups on the development and testing of collaborative social simulation models. Additionally, past offerings of a similar course at the graduate level have resulted in graduate-faculty collaborations on conference presentations and journal article submissions. It is anticipated that the new undergraduate version of the course will provide an avenue for undergraduate-faculty research collaborations also.

Throughout the initial use of the space in the newly developed courses, students will be regularly invited to provide formative feedback on the course, as well as about the makerspace itself. Opportunities to provide feedback anonymously through an electronic survey will be offered. The flexibility of a workshop-style classroom arrangement makes it possible to quickly adjust the topics covered in response to student feedback.

Following the creation of the makerspace and its first use in PSY493W/PSY992, the project will be described in combination with student satisfaction and learning outcome data. This description and analysis will take the form of a research paper to be submitted to a journal focused on technology and pedagogy (e.g. Active Learning in Higher Education) to allow other educators to benefit from lessons learned through the project. The students in these first course offerings will be invited to participate as co-authors on the paper.

Project Update:

Due to the campus shutting down last semester and staying online for the fall semester Zachary modified his course to be delivered virtually. Additionally, he included a component on building models of infectious disease.

Learn more about Zachary Neal

March 2020 campus was closed down due to the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic. Courses were moved to remote teaching for the spring 2020 semester and fully online courses for the Summer and Fall of 2020. This impacted many students and educators in the way that they both taught and learned.