An Extension to the Logistic Model

This post describes how my classes wrap up their preliminary exploration into population modeling using spreadsheets.

Earlier posts in this series:

Sparrow Lab

Exponential Growth

Logistic Growth

Once my students have successfully modeled logistic growth, we sometimes wrap things up with discussions on the power and limitations of models followed with a sequee into human population growth models and predictions.  However, as often as not, if the class has begun to embrace modeling I’ll take them on a momentary side trip.  To begin this exploration, I ask them to identify the parameters in the equation that have the most impact as the parameter changes.  I ask that they systematically try out changes to N, to K and to r.  Generally, the students conclude that changes in N and K are pretty straight forward and predictable but that changes to r change the overall shape of the growth curve more dramatically.  Interestingly, since the inititial values for r that the class have used to this point have been less than “1″, I usually have to persuade them to try out values greater than “1″.  I ask them to record in their notebook, the shape of the growth curve for various values of r between 1 and 4.  Pretty soon I hear some “ohhhh’s” and some “wow’s” coming from different students as they discover the same type of patterns that Robert May (R.M. May (1976). “Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics“. Nature 261: 459) did back in the early seventies when he explored the effects of different r values on the logistic.  You can find more info at:


There are some difference between their models and accepted models, but soon the students find that there is a point where there are two stable points that the “population” oscillates between–then four and then chaos…..


From Wikipedia

Now, I’ve got a problem—how far do we explore?  Generally, I leave this particular topic at this point with a few quick words on complexity and how small differences in intitial conditions can have profound effects on processes through time.  Mostly, my goal here is to introduce students to an entire other field that they might find fascinating and be able to link to their math, to their biology and to their physics.  To that end I challenge them to explore this topic on their own time–and many do, each year, bringing back all kinds of links, fractals, and applications of complexity theory in biology.

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