SimBio (Simbiotic Software, Inc.) had its origins in a graduate class on experimental design offered by a marine biology lab in the Red Sea city of Eilat. At the time, I was working there as a tech and the professors asked for a simple program that threw some dots up on the screen, and let students sample those dots with square quadrats of different sizes. Although really simple, it turned out to be a powerful teaching tool in that class, and along the way, I decided it would be more fun if the dots moved sometimes, if they could have different colors, if some of them might be able to eat others…and so it grew. I had already written several programs for teaching biology in the several years before this and developed a philosophy of giving students tools to do conceptually real experiments on the computer. Despite how limited the first program was, I tried to include this philosophy right away by giving the user control over the rules that creatures followed on the screen, and making labs that were fun to play with.
When I came back to the U.S. and entered graduate school, I realized the potential this little program had to grow into something more general for teaching ecological concepts. Originally written in Turbo-pascal on a DOS machine (Windows was not around yet), I spent a summer translating to C on a Macintosh (with windows! and clicking on buttons instead of pushing keys!), and wrote a set of more formal “laboratories” that covered some fundamental topics in ecology. It helped to have input from the very strong ecology faculty in the Zoology department at the University of Washington, and from lots of students in classes around the world who used beta versions. That first, primitive EcoBeaker was adopted by 100 universities after its release in 1996 and has been growing ever since.
Since then, we’ve become much more sophisticated at SimBiotic in how we think about teaching and what we can do with our software. In the past decade we’ve rewritten the EcoBeaker codebase 3 times and developed a strong research program on how best to use simulations to teach biology. We’ve taken the same teaching philosophy and branched into other areas of biology. And we’ve built up a great group of people working on our teaching labs: the biologists, education specialists, programmers, graphic designers, and others within the company, along with a bunch of exceptional consultants. It’s been great to work with such a top notch group of people, and really fulfilling to know we’re all making a difference in students understanding, and enjoying, their biology classes.