Learning about Ecosystems Science and Complex Causality through Experimentation in a Virtual World

This project will develop a modified virtual world and accompanying curriculum for middle school students to help them learn to more deeply understand ecosystems patterns and the strengths and limitations of experimentation in ecosystems science. The project will build upon a computer world called EcoMUVE, a Multi-User Virtual Environment or MUVE, and will develop ways for students to conduct experiments within the virtual world and to see the results of those experiments.

Project Email: 
Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
1416781
Funding Period: 
Monday, September 1, 2014 to Thursday, August 31, 2017
Full Description: 

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Comprehending how ecosystems function is important knowledge for citizens in making decisions and for students who aspire to become scientists. This understanding requires deep thinking about complex causality, unintended side-effects, and the strengths and limitations of experimental science. These are difficult concepts to learn due to the many interacting components and non-linear interrelationships involved. Ecosystems dynamics is particularly difficult to teach in classrooms because ecosystems involve complexities such as phenomena distributed widely across space that change over long time frames. Learning when and how experimental science can provide useful information in understanding ecosystems dynamics requires moving beyond the limited affordances of classrooms. The project will: 1) advance understanding of experimentation in ecosystems as it can be applied to education; 2) show how student learning is affected by having opportunities to experiment in the virtual world that simulate what scientists do in the real world and with models; and 3) produce results comparing this form of teaching to earlier instructional approaches. This project will result in a learning environment that will support learning about the complexities of the earth's ecosystem.

The project will build upon a computer world called EcoMUVE, a Multi-User Virtual Environment or MUVE, developed as part of an earlier NSF-funded project. A MUVE is a simulated world in which students can virtually walk around, make observations, talk to others, and collect data. EcoMUVE simulates a pond and a forest ecosystem. It offers an immersive context that makes it possible to teach about ecosystems in the classroom, allowing exploration of the complexities of large scale problems, extended time frames and and multiple causality. To more fully understand how ecosystems work, students need the opportunity to experiment and to observe what happens. This project will advance this earlier work by developing ways for students to conduct experiments within the virtual world and to see the results of those experiments. The project will work with ecosystem scientists to study the types of experiments that they conduct, informing knowledge in education about how ecosystem scientists think, and will build opportunities for students that mirror what scientists do. The project will develop a modified virtual world and accompanying curriculum for middle school students to help them learn to more deeply understand ecosystems patterns and the strengths and limitations of experimentation in ecosystems science. The resulting program will be tested against existing practice, the EcoMUVE program alone, and other programs that teach aspects of ecosystems dynamics to help teachers know how to best use these curricula in the classroom.