DRK12-Biograph: Graphical Programming for Constructing Complex Systems Understanding in Biology

This project will investigate how complex systems concepts supported by innovative curricular resources, technology applications and a comprehensive research and development structure can assist student learning in the domain of biology by providing a unifying theme across scales of time and space. The project seeks to address four areas of critical need in STEM education: biological sciences, complex systems, computational modeling, and equal access for all.

Award Number: 
1019228
Funding Period: 
September 1, 2010 to August 31, 2014
Project Evaluator: 
David Reider
Full Description: 

This proposal outlines a research and development project that investigates how complex systems concepts supported by innovative curricular resources, technology applications and a comprehensive research and development structure can assist student learning in the domain of biology by providing a unifying theme across scales of time and space. The project seeks to address four areas of critical need in STEM education: biological sciences, complex systems, computational modeling, and equal access for all. This proposal explores how these needs are addressed through a curricular and technological intervention that structures biology learning through the framework of complex systems and computational modeling. The primary partners are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, working with eight teachers in four schools in the Boston area.

The project integrates graphical programming and simulation software, StarLogo TNG, into the standard high school biology curriculum to improve learning of biology concepts through the introduction and understanding of core complex systems processes. Instead of learning biology in discrete chunks, the chosen biological topics are connected through the framework of complex systems, and successively build in complexity from the basic building blocks of life to the interdependence and sustainability of life forms. This approach is designed to help students understand how processes at one level are connected to those at another level. The research is designed to answer the following questions: 1. Does a learning progression based on the complex systems ideas of scale and emergence enable students to make connections across biological topics, remediate known misconceptions, and apply core complex systems principles better than traditional instructional sequences? 2. What are the on-going affordances and constraints of implementation taking into consideration structural, functional and behavioral variables and what changes to project activities yield increased implementation and learning capacities? 3. Does programming of simulations increase understanding of complex systems and biology concepts compared to use of previously constructed simulations? The evaluation is designed to collect data and provide feedback on the adherence to the plan, the implementation challenged, and how research informs development.

The project anticipates a number of deliverables towards the end of the project and beyond. These include the creation of a unified high school biology curricular sequence that builds in increasing spatial and temporal scales to deepen student understanding of four core biology topics; the production, implementation and testing of curricular activities that acknowledge and ameliorate known implementation challenges; and the development of curricular strategies and tools to help teachers and students improve knowledge and skills in computational modeling, computer programming and participation in the cyberinfrastructure. In order to increase ease of integration into schools, and enhance scalability, the simulation activities are facilitated by a new web-based version of StarLogo TNG that integrates the curricular materials all of which will be distributed freely. Additional dissemination strategies include a website, conferences, a newsletter, community activities, active dissemination, and academic presentations.

Project Materials