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CT-E Profile

Integrating Computational Thinking and Environmental Science: Design Based Research on Using Simulated Ecosystems to Improve Student Understanding of Complex System Behavior


The Computational Thinking in Ecosystems (CT-E) project is funded by the STEM+Computing Partnership (STEM+C) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the integration of computing in STEM teaching and learning. The project is a collaboration between the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network, and Design I/O. It will address the need for improved data, modeling and computational literacy in young people through development and testing of a portable, computer-based simulation of interactions that occur within ecosystems and between coupled natural and human systems; computational thinking skills are required to advance farther in the simulation. On a tablet computer at NYSCI, each participant will receive a set of virtual "cards" that require them to enter a computer command, routine or algorithm to control the behavior of animals within a simulated ecosystem. As participants explore the animals' simulated habitat, they will learn increasingly more complex strategies needed for the animal's survival, will use similar computational ideas and skills that ecologists use to model complex, dynamic ecological systems, and will respond to the effects of the ecosystem changes that they and other participants elicit through interaction with the simulated environment. Research on this approach to understanding interactions among species within biological systems through integration of computing has potential to advance knowledge. Researchers will study how simulations that are similar to popular collectable card game formats can improve computational thinking and better prepare STEM learners to take an interest in, and advance knowledge in, the field of environmental science as their academic and career aspirations evolve. The project will also design and develop a practical approach to programing complex models, and develop skills in communities of young people to exercise agency in learning about modeling and acting within complex systems; deepening learning in young people about how to work toward sustainable solutions, solve complex engineering problems and be better prepared to address the challenges of a complex, global society.

Computational Thinking in the Ecosystems (CT-E) will use a design-based study to prototype and test this novel, tablet-based collectable card game-like intervention to develop innovative practices in middle school science. Through this approach, some of the most significant challenges to teaching practice in the Next Generation Science Standards will be addressed, through infusing computational thinking into life science learning. CT-E will develop a tablet-based simulation representing six dynamic, interconnected ecosystems in which students control the behaviors of creatures to intervene in habitats to accomplish goals and respond to changes in the health of their habitat and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Behaviors of creatures in the simulation are controlled through the virtual collectable "cards", with each representing a computational process (such as sequences, loops, variables, conditionals and events). Gameplay involves individual players choosing a creature and habitat, formulating strategies and programming that creature with tactics in that habitat (such as finding food, digging in the ground, diverting water, or removing or planting vegetation) to navigate that habitat and survive. Habitats chosen by the participant are part of particular kinds of biomes (such as desert, rain forest, marshlands and plains) that have their own characteristic flora, fauna, and climate. Because the environments represent complex dynamic interconnected environmental models, participants are challenged to explore how these models work, and test hypotheses about how the environment will respond to their creature's interventions; but also to the creatures of other players, since multiple participants can collaborate or compete similar to commercially available collectable card games (e.g., Magic and Yu-Go-Oh!). NYSCI will conduct participatory design based research to determine impacts on structured and unstructured learning settings and whether it overcomes barriers to learning complex environmental science.