Computational Modeling in Science

Project Dates: 2020 – present

Fostering Sustainable Use of Computational Modeling in K-12 Science Classrooms

From Access to Sustainability: Investigating Ways to Foster Sustainable Use of Computational Modeling in K-12 Science Classrooms (A2S) is a NSF-funded research project which seeks to support and examine the development of computational modeling as a sustained practice in middle school science classrooms (NSF DRK-12 Award 2010413). The project is a collaboration between researchers at Columbia University, MIT, and UC Berkeley, teamed up with Fablevision, a software development studio.

Modeling is a core scientific activity in which a difficult-to-observe phenomenon is represented, e.g., visually or in a computer program. Research has shown that sustained experience with modeling contributes to sophisticated understanding, learning, and engagement of scientific practices. Computational modeling is a promising way to integrate computation and science learning. Yet computational modeling is not widely adopted in science classrooms over sustained periods of time because of difficulties such as the time required for students to become adept modelers, the need to better integrate computational modeling with other scientific practices, and the need for teachers to experience agency in using these modeling tools.

Based on foundational work from co-PIs Blikstein/Fuhrmann and Engin Bumbacher (Bifocal Modeling, CloudLab), and Wagh/Wilkerson (Deltatick), we will have several cycles of design-based research as well as teacher co-design to support two objectives:

  1. Development of an new environments for computational modeling and scientific experiments, and the accompanying thematically linked curricular units.
  2. Examination of how this new software and curriculum enable students to become sophisticated modelers and integrate modeling with other scientific practices such as physical experimentation and argumentation.

Mock-up of a block-based computational modeling platform

Our investigation of computational modeling as a sustained practice in science classrooms centers around four research questions:

  1. How do students become sophisticated modelers as they shift from using phenomenon-level primitives to unpacking and modifying these primitives for extended investigations?
  2. How do classroom norms around computational modeling develop over time? Specifically, how do student models become objects for classroom reflection and how students integrate modeling into other practices such as explanation and argumentation?
  3. How does data from physical experiments support students in constructing and refining models?
  4. How does sustained engagement support students’ conceptual learning and learning to model using computing tools?

Abstract

Modeling is a core scientific activity in which a difficult-to-observe phenomenon is represented, e.g., visually or in a computer program. Research has shown that sustained experience with modeling contributes to sophisticated understanding, learning, and engagement of scientific practices. Computational modeling is a promising way to integrate computation and science learning. Yet computational modeling is not widely adopted in science classrooms over sustained periods of time because of difficulties such as the time required for students to become adept modelers, the need to better integrate computational modeling with other scientific practices, and the need for teachers to experience agency in using these modeling tools.

This Design and Development project investigates how to support sustained engagement in computational modeling in middle school classrooms in two ways:

1) Design and develop an accessible modeling toolkit and accompanying thematically linked curricular units; and,

2) Examine how this toolkit and curriculum enable students to become sophisticated modelers and integrate modeling with other scientific practices such as physical experimentation and argumentation.

The project will contribute to the conversation around how to support students and teachers to incorporate computational modeling together with valued scientific practices into their classrooms for sustained periods. For three years, the project will work with six sixth and seventh grade teachers and approximately 400 students.

Through iterative cycles of design-based research, the project will design a computational modeling tool and six curricular units for sixth and seventh-grade students. The team will work closely with two teacher co-designers to design and develop each of the six curricular units.

The goal is to investigate:

1) How students become sophisticated modelers as they shift from using phenomenon-level primitives to unpacking and modifying these primitives for extended investigations;

2) How classroom norms around computational modeling develop over time. Specifically, how do student models become objects for classroom reflection and how students integrate modeling into other practices such as explanation and argumentation;

3) How data from physical experiments support students in constructing and refining models; and,

4) How sustained engagement supports students conceptual learning and learning to model using computing tools.

The team will collect and analyze video and written data, as well as log files and pre/post tests, to examine how communities of students and teachers adopt computational modeling as an integral practice in science learning. For video and text analysis, the team will use qualitative coding to detect patterns before, during, and after the activities. For the examination of log files from the software, the project will use learning analytics techniques such as the classification and clustering of students’ sequences of actions. Finally, the team will also conduct pre/post-tests on both content and meta-modeling skills, analyzing the results with standard statistical tests.

 

With a $2 million NSF grant, TC’s Paulo Blikstein hopes to turn kids into investigators

TEACHERS COLLEGE NEWSROOM LINK

Joe Levine

August 7, 2020

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), introduced in 2013, were hailed for their potential to transform K-12 students into “mini-scientists” who could learn core concepts by forming and testing their own hypotheses about how the laws of nature work.

But the standards have proven difficult to practice in actual classrooms, in part because a key way that students are supposed to fulfill that vision is through computational and mathematical modeling — the creation and use of computer simulations that allow them to see their own ideas in action.

“The idea is that students should not just take natural laws as set in stone, but create their own laws, testing them, doing what-if scenarios,” says Paulo Blikstein, Associate Professor of Learning Technology Design, and Director of Teachers College’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (TLT Lab). “So, with a chemical reaction, you don’t just teach them the formula for what’s going on. Instead, they create their own simulation of how they think a reaction works — do atoms move in circles? Or randomly? Do they collide and bond or just blow up and disappear? — and then through testing, sharing, and conversation with peers, they likely converge toward the accepted theory. And in that process, they can bring real world knowledge they already have.”

 

ALLOWING FOR THE WHAT-IF Blikstein has spent his career creating technologies that allow children to explore. (Photo: TC Archives) 

 

 

 

It’s a great approach, Blikstein says, “but the problem is that the tools for computational modeling aren’t user friendly enough. Few tools right now are really manageable by the teacher or practical within the constraints of the classroom. So what’s happening instead is that many teachers are just saying, ‘OK, to fulfill that requirement, I’ll show a ready-made animation, have kids play with it for half an hour and we’re done.’”

Now a team led by Blikstein, whose FabLearn program has brought digital fabrication and maker education to schools in more than 22 countries, has received a three-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and research a new “technological ecosystem” that will enable students to create, test and compare their own ideas about science.

The effort, which will build on a decade of work by Blikstein in this area, will include co-design with classroom teachers to develop accompanying science learning units, and subsequent research to determine whether students are learning more using the new technology and curricula.

The funding — a Level 2 grant from NSF’s DRK-12 Program, which is one of the most important for STEM research at the agency — is focused on sixth- and seventh-grade science, but the results will be adaptable to other age groups, including high school students.

“You don’t become a good reader if you only read books 30 minutes a month,” says Tamar Fuhrmann, a co-Principal Investigator on the project and Senior Research Scientist working within TC’s TLT Lab. “One of our main points is that kids should have sustained exposure to modeling tools to build real fluency. These inquiry practices should not be once-a-year experiences, but instead, 20-30 percent of the science hours in a given grade.”

The big point is to have kids doing more real science in classrooms. Not just hearing about or replicating what Newton or Darwin did, but instead, being Newton or Darwin in the sense of proposing, testing, and refining their own laws of nature.

—Paulo Blikstein

“Ultimately, the big point is to have kids doing more real science in classrooms,” Blikstein adds. “Not just hearing about or replicating what Newton or Darwin did, but instead, being Newton or Darwin in the sense of proposing, testing, and refining their own laws of nature.”

There are currently available learning environments that allow youngsters to change variables in natural phenomena — for example, the number of atoms in a chemical reaction, or the temperature that is causing the molecules to move and collide — and then watch simulations of how those phenomena are altered.

 

ALL ABOUT FLUENCY: Fuhrmann says that, as with reading, kids need regular exposure to computer modeling. 

 

 

 

“Often people call this interactive or active learning, but the space for students to change things is in fact very small,” Fuhrmann says. “In these programs, the laws of nature are already embedded — you don’t get to look under the hood to see what makes things go.”

Blikstein team’s approach focuses on creating an easy-to-learn computational environment that will allow children not only to create their own simulations, but also validate them:

“In addition to the programming, we’ll develop low-cost sensors that will enable you to check your simulated outcomes against an actual experiment in a real wet lab, side-by-side, in real time,” Blikstein says.

Kids should have sustained exposure to modeling tools to build real fluency. These inquiry practices should not be once-a-year experiences, but instead, 20-30 percent of the science hours in a given grade.

—Tamar Fuhrmann

Blikstein and Fuhrmann, whose collaborators are Michelle Wilkerson, Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California-Berkeley, and Aditi Wagh, a research scientist, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasize that the new tools they will be creating will not only be appropriate for classrooms, but also for use in remote environments.

“We wrote our proposal long before the COVID pandemic hit, but together with my former doctoral student Engin Bumbacher, we have been working on remote wet-lab technologies for years,” Blikstein says. “These tools won’t be a complete replacement for being in school or in the lab, but they will definitely enable students to do actual experiments at home, either with low-cost materials, or accessing a remote microscope. Imagine if instead of spending hours on social media, kids start using their phones to run remote experiments and build scientific models? It will definitely beat watching a Zoom lecture, and that’s good news for teachers who are desperately searching for alternatives to standing in front of a camera.”

Team Members

Paulo Blikstein
Tamar Fuhrmann
Michelle Wilkerson (University of California, Berkeley)
Aditi Wagh (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Engin Bumbacher

 

Funding

Funded by NSF’s Discovery Research PreK-12 (DRK-12) program, grant #2010413.

DRK-12 seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

 

Contact

For more information, please contact Tamar Fuhrmann (research@tltlab.org).