Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Leiden archaeologists create open educational resources on agent-based modeling

The past two years, Laura van der Knaap and Professor Karsten Lambers worked on creating open teaching materials on agent-based modeling, funded by Erasmus+ and in collaboration with Danish, Irish and Dutch partners. Programming is an important skill involved in this, which is often seen as intimidating to learn. ‘The course we created is aimed to be a good way to start. It is an easy and fun way, even if you have no coding experience at all.’

Stepping stone

The online course is meant to be a good first step in building experience with agent-based modeling. ‘You will learn the basics,’ Karsten Lambers explains, ‘which are transferable to other coding environments. In my experience archaeology students often have trouble imagining themselves as doing this work in coding. If you get them beyond this first threshold, it is very easy to continue.’

Archaeology alumna Laura van der Knaap did most of the development of the course. ‘We created the lessons to make coding and programming less scary, and to walk you through it,’ van der Knaap notes. ‘You will start with an empty model, and then you can expand upon that, all the while being guided through it.’ It is a very practical way to teach students how to model. ‘You can only learn by doing it yourself. And it is way less intimidating than throwing people into the deep.’ Each part of the course can be done in an hour. ‘And at the end of the tutorial you will have a model you can be proud of.’

The tutorials are interactive and guide you through building your own agent-based models.

Basic building blocks

Agent-based modeling, or ABM, is a bottom-up modeling and simulation approach for studying complex systems such as human societies. It can be used for many purposes, e.g. for testing hypotheses about which phenomena gave rise to observed patterns in the archaeological record. ‘Instead of modeling a phenomenon looking at it from the top, you look at its basic building blocks,’ van der Knaap explains. ‘Take population growth: you can use a mathematical equation, or you can use ABM, simulating individuals meeting each other and having off-spring.’ In particular, the model works well for smaller scales. ‘ABM is very useful for archaeology. It will allow you to create complex patterns without worrying about mathematical equations.’

‘You can start super simple,’ Lambers adds. ‘Just give agents one or two properties. And once you have a good idea how these properties work, you add complexity. This can help you model demographic trends, for example. You start from very simple assumptions based on a single archaeological site, and then you see the accumulated effects in your model.’

In one of the first lessons you learn how to build a simple model to simulate Out of Africa dispersal.

Large audience

Already in its first weeks, the course reached a large audience. ‘We got some great comments already, like people saying that they are happy with the course, since its contents are not being taught in their home country,’ Lambers states.

Van der Knaap sees this enthusiasm back in application numbers. ‘We organised an online workshop and we got some 500 sign-ups, from all continents. Pretty good considering the scope of what we are doing.’

Visit the education resources

The programming language the model builder uses is NetLogo. ‘This is similar to natural language, but still employs general principles of coding languages.’ This gives people without any programming experience a good introduction. ‘The course consists of five tutorials in total, each tutorial takes some three hours to complete. So, you can rush through it in a couple of days,’ Van der Knaap explains. ‘But you can also do it in two weeks, if you really want to dive into it. There are references to literature and case-studies, so if you take time to read those, it will take longer. Soasically, you can go as crazy as you want with it. If you want to create your own adventure after a couple of tutorials, you can do that too!’

Check out the teaching materials and other resources right now!

This website uses cookies.  More information.