Watershed game app developed by Iowa State reaching wide audience as platform for fun, learning

PEWI computer app homepage screen

AMES, Iowa — It’s a computer game for teenagers. It’s a web-based learning application for college ag and natural resource classes. It’s a training tool for professional conservation planners. It’s PEWI!

People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration, better known as PEWI, is an innovative game-based learning app based on playing land-use “What if” scenarios. On the screen, it simulates a colorful, 6,000-acre watershed where players can test the impacts of decisions and solutions. Behind the graphical display, the app draws on a deep background of data, coding and modeling that keeps expanding to include new information and decision pathways to deliver ever-more robust and realistic outcomes.

PEWI’s evolution

Originally a brainchild of MacArthur Fellow Lisa Schulte Moore, professor of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University, PEWI started out as a spreadsheet for a class exercise. Since then, PEWI has developed into an interactive tool for formal and non-formal education with the help of a creative, interdisciplinary team of faculty and students.

PEWI 4.0 was released earlier this year, building on a web-based platform introduced in 2014. The newest version gives players 15 land-use options, including conventional corn and soybeans, pasture, mixed vegetable crops, wetlands, forests and short-rotation woody bioenergy crops. These link to 19 ecosystem services, such as crop yields, habitat, soil quality, carbon sequestration, erosion, water quality and habitat. Users can track outcomes and economics across years and changing weather. 

John Tyndall, natural resource economist and associate professor of natural resource ecology and management, is one of the faculty members who has made important contributions to PEWI. Enhancements by Tyndall and his students are reflected in recent components that estimate the financial impacts of different scenarios - important additions that reflect input from farmers who have used the game.

Graduate and undergraduate students have also helped shape PEWI. They include Robert Valek (’20 PhD sustainable agriculture and forestry), now owner of a new Iowa startup, Scientific Agile Software Consulting, who is credited with major improvements to the game’s content and playability; and Richard Magala, a current PhD student in forestry and DataFEWSion working on new and improved modules for stream biology, greenhouse gases and pollinators.

“In designing PEWI, we made it a point to prioritize the concepts, but also to keep in mind that we wanted it to be a sandbox style game that offers what is called ‘optional degrees of complexity’ to create an environment rich with many decisions to explore,” said Valek, who based his PhD work on the game. “It has a lot of deep context that you don’t often see. That increases the game’s replayability – and its ‘cool factor.’”

Education is PEWI’s ‘heart and soul’

Nancy Grudens-Schuck, associate professor of agricultural education and studies and its director of graduate education and certificates, has been involved with PEWI since the early days, leading efforts to make PEWI an effective learning technology for classrooms. She created a PEWI-based teacher guide adaptable for many ages and learning situations and worked with a team to align the materials with national education standards.

“Education is at PEWI’s heart and soul,” Grudens-Schuck said. “It is a dynamic, engaging way to introduce the practices of science into agriculture, science technology, engineering and mathematics learning, based on real scientific stuff from real watersheds. It’s fun to explore, and students can see how factors cross and influence each other, allowing them to comprehend relationships that otherwise could quickly become overwhelming!”

The free, open-source app and curriculum are being used primarily in agriculture and science classes offered to high school and undergraduate students, including Iowa State’s Science Bound program. Grudens-Schuck notes it is also attracting interest from 4-H leaders and agricultural and conservation professionals who work with adults.

Most of PEWI’s users have been in Iowa and Minnesota, but the game has found its way into curricula all over the country and the world, from the University of Vermont and Stanford University in California, to McGill University in Montréal, Québec, and as far away as Portugal.

PEWI and associated data about its use as a learning tool have been shared in a number of peer-reviewed journals, including recent articles in “Natural Science Education“ and “Ecological Modelling.” 

Born out of creativity

“Thanks to the talented faculty and students who have helped build on our early ideas, PEWI has developed into an exciting, fact-based game that’s fun, teaches important concepts and is easily adaptable for a variety of applications and audiences,” said Schulte Moore

“PEWI was born out of creativity. I was curious if we could bring the concepts of land use and ecosystem services together in a tool that fostered learning. I’m proud of what it’s become through the contributions of many ISU students – 25 and counting – and faculty,” she said.

Support for PEWI has come from a variety of public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation, McKnight Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture and USDA McIntire-Stennis Program, Iowa State University and Iowa State Extension and Outreach.

Try PEWI and learn more at https://www.nrem.iastate.edu/pewi/