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5 Ways To Make Ecological Competition More Approachable to Students

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster
November 2, 2022

Introduction: Competition 

The topics in Ecology primarily deal with an organism, its interrelationships with other organisms in a community and the type of environment that sustains its life, growth and reproduction. The interrelationships can be mutually beneficial (positive interaction like mutualism and symbiosis), beneficial to one and neutral to another (commensalism), harmful to one and neutral to another (amensalism), beneficial to one and harmful to another (parasitism, predation and competition), etc. 

The different types of species relationships ensure a healthy balance of species distribution in the ecosystem. This necessitates the study of these interrelationships holistically. 

Competition is one of the most important species relationships that exist on the planet. Competition is defined as a species interaction where populations or individuals compete for common resources like mates, food, water, habitat, space, etc. When this interaction is between individuals or populations of the same species, it’s called “intraspecies competition”. This interaction is between individuals or populations of different species, it’s called “interspecies competition”. 

When students are introduced to these terminologies, the topic sometimes sounds quite conjectural. Due to several reasons, educators find it hard to explain the importance of these ecological interactions and the way biodiversity works in unison to maintain life on Earth. In the age of Google where resources are plenty, it can sometimes be a task to summarize this topic as per the needs of high school or university/college students.

To make the flow of this subject lucid and easy for students, we, at Labster have compiled some resources here. This article can provide some help as it attempts to identify the major issues encountered by students while studying this topic. It also lists practical solutions that teachers and educators can incorporate while teaching the same in their next class. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

Why can Competition be tricky to teach or learn?

There are 3 reasons why students dread and confuse the topic of Competition. Acknowledging these issues is the first step towards making the topic more approachable. 

1. It feels philosophical

Topics in Ecology are not easy to demonstrate in contemporary classroom setups. It calls for more field trips and experiments where students can potentially observe the ecological interactions happening in real-time. The same logic applies to this topic of competition. To make the idea behind competition clear to students, there is a dire need to take more field trips which are very often missed out on or underemphasized. Moreover, remembering the list of species taking part in a competitive relationship becomes difficult and useless when the students haven't understood why this type of species interaction (competition) exists between them. 

2. It is perplexing 

Students often find the idea of competition and other species interaction very confusing. There are different types of species interaction where one species is positively affected while the other is negatively affected like parasitism, predation and competition. Competition is just one type among them. Students often find it hard to differentiate between these species interactions. Furthermore, it becomes quite taxing for students to remember the details of other species interactions and their differences with competition (mutualism versus competition, commensalism versus competition, amensalism versus competition, etc). 

3. It requires one to critically think and postulate

Conventionally designed curricula don’t quote enough examples or employ situation-based analogies for simplification of ecological concepts like species interactions one of which is competition. Under such a situation, even teachers tend to directly dictate the definitions of various terms like species, population, resource availability, limiting resources, interspecific competition, intraspecific competition, direct and indirect interactions, etc and leave it up to the students to rack their brains behind them.  Living in a modern world of ‘consumer culture, the very premise of environmental thinking sounds absurd to new learners. And they usually cram the definitions taught in class rather than devoting time to rationally and critically thinking about such topics. 

5 ways to make Competition a more approachable topic to understand

To address the issues encountered while teaching this topic, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. These can decode many different aspects of the ecological importance of species interaction like competition. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Simplify the idea of species interaction 

The first step that all educators can take forward is to talk in-depth about species interaction and why such interactions are important. Talking about the healthy balance maintained in the ecosystem only because different types of species interactions go on uninterrupted can be helpful. Discussing how resources on the planet are “limited” and their availability is something that defines how species interact with each other for those limited resources can help your students understand the idea in totality. Discuss the different types of resources that are limiting in nature like food, mates, water, living space, habitat, etc. Educators can employ a fun activity-based session where students can choose some species as per wish and try to list the above-mentioned speculated resources. They can then ruminate and decide how the competition will arise and with which type of organisms.

2. Step out of the class and take more field trips

Taking more field trips is always recommended while teaching Ecology topics. We recommend educators take their students on safaris and forest tours where they can gather a first-hand experience of species interactions and relationships. You can then explain how the limited forest resources like a pond in a 200 square feet area are the only water source and how different organisms compete with each other for the water resource.

It is a more engaging and fun-filled way of delivering ideas and information. When students look around and connect with the different phenomena, it’s bound to make space in their core memory. You will be able to explain the meanings of direct and indirect interactions in the field in a better way. Field trips can be a good opportunity for students to become more observant of nature and relate classroom lessons to nature’s functioning.

3. Simplify the terminologies

Help students understand the essence of the mechanisms, concepts, and terminologies. Most of the time, if the core ideas are clear, making sense of the terminologies becomes quite easy for students. You can start with the underlisted topics and explain them in depth.

  • Direct and indirect interactions

  • Interspecific and intraspecific competition

  • Interference versus Exploitation versus Apparent competition

  • Why are interference and exploitation competition considered “real competitions while apparent competition isn’t?

  • How do species interact “indirectly” in interference and exploitation competition while “directly” in apparent competition?

  • How does competition lead to a change in the fitness of the participating species?

competition virtual lab 2

Figure: A snippet from the Competition simulation by Labster where your students can learn about competition works. It is available for University/College classes.

4. Quote relatable examples 

Quoting examples that can clarify how competition works in nature can be helpful. Educators can quote examples that explain how limited resources lead to competition in the first place. Then they can use examples where they talk about each limiting resource. We provide a list of examples that can be used.

  • Example of interference competition” and “intraspecific competition: In a population of gorillas in a part of the forest, if there are 10 males and 2 females, mate choice becomes a limiting resource for males. Now, male gorillas will prohibit other males from accessing a potential mate. They will display physical aggression or employ other different tactics to increase their chances of mating by dominating the 2 females. Here, the competition between males will be an example of “interference competition” and “intraspecific competition”. Since all the competitors involved in this species interaction belong to the “same species”, it’s an example of intraspecific competition. And since all the competitors “directly interfere and modify” the resource-attaining behavior of others, it’s an example of interference competition. 

Similarly, you can quote instances where interspecific, exploitation and apparent competition is at work. Students could better understand the ideas of different types of competition using relevant examples.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since field trips can’t be taken every day and with a shortage of visualization tools at hand, competition can turn boring and complex for students. Rather than struggling with how to deliver the lecture more efficiently, we at Labster encourage modern-day educators to make the most of the Competition simulation. It takes your students into a virtual world where they can help the residents of an exoplanet Astakos IV increase the yield of their crops by reducing the competition between different species.

In this virtual world, your students can learn how to identify and quantify competition between species, postulate their theories and hypotheses and then test them. Since this is a virtual experiment, they can redo and restart if any issue arises in the middle of the experiment. 

Teachers and educators can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better visual options where they can follow the different concepts in a free-flowing manner. Using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

competition virtual lab

You can learn more about the Competition simulation here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

Figure: A snippet from the Competition simulation by Labster where your students can learn about the quantification of competition. It is available for University/College classes.

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