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Integrating Computational Thinking in Ecosystem Science Education via Modeling in Immersive Virtual Worlds


Research has revealed that young students can reason and understand complex science concepts and can engage at relatively sophisticated levels in computer programming. Developing scientific and computational understanding depends upon a strong foundation in elementary school, thus, this project will introduce third grade students to computational thinking (abstraction, data representation, and algorithms), computer modeling, and environmental systems thinking through an interdisciplinary, virtual reality curriculum on ecosystems. The curriculum will scaffold student understanding of computational modeling as a core practice used to explore and understand ecosystem interactions, such as the interconnection of habitats within an ecosystem and species survival. Integrating computer modeling in the elementary science curriculum advances important 21st century learning goals regarding computational thinking within disciplinary contexts. The design-based research will investigate the seamless integration of life science, mathematics, and computing to improve both student learning and teaching and will contribute substantially to advancing elementary science, technology, mathematics, and computing education that will reveal important aspects of children's understanding of complex environmental and computational thinking concepts. This project is funded by the STEM+Computing Partnership (STEM+C) program that seeks to advance multidisciplinary integration of computing and computational thinking in STEM teaching and learning through applied research and development across one or more domains; advancement of computing in K-12; and broadening participation in computing fields. Investments are made in critical areas of pedagogy, pre-service education, and in-service teacher professional development.
The project will use design-based research to combine an immersive virtual environment with hands-on interactive modeling through a scaffolded computational interface that will connect visual models to dynamic representations of ecosystem interactions in a simulated forest setting. The curriculum will provide a supported, object-oriented programming environment (similar to Scratch and StarLogo NOVA) with a simple, scaffolded block interface customized to focus on ecosystems modeling, and designed specifically for younger children. The learning goals related to the study of habitats and food webs are taught using a systems perspective, shifting the instructional focus from comprehension of static representations to consequential student interaction with dynamic computational models. The project will investigate which approaches to abstraction and representation offer the best scaffolding to young students and to what extent students are able to construct, modify, and interpret computational models of ecological concepts; to what extent do students show gains in understanding of causal dynamics in ecosystem science; and how teachers can best incorporate an interdisciplinary science and computing curricula in their practice. Project outcomes will inform how to best integrate science content, science inquiry, computational modeling processes, and computational thinking, which are core objectives of the STEM+Computing program.