SimSnap: Orchestrating Collaborative Learning in Biology through Reconfigurable Simulations (Collective Research: Tissenbaum)

This project will develop and research collaborative learning in biology using tablet-style computers that support simulations of biological systems and that can be used individually or linked together. The project will be implemented over 4 years in middle school life science classes, in which students will solve important socio-scientific problems, such as growing healthy plants in community gardens to address the need to grow sufficient produce to fulfill ever increasing and varying demands.

Full Description: 

The project will develop and research collaborative learning in biology using tablet-style computers that support simulations of biological systems and that can be used individually or linked together. The project will be implemented over 4 years in middle school life science classes, in which students will solve important socio-scientific problems, such as growing healthy plants in community gardens to address the need to grow sufficient produce to fulfill ever increasing and varying demands. Working within a digital plant habitat simulation, students will investigate how different environmental and genetic factors affect the health of a variety of plants and vegetables. As students engage in design tasks, they will be able to seamlessly move between individual and collaborative work with peers by "snapping" their tablets together (by placing them next to each other) to create a single shared simulation that spans all their devices. Students will be able to drop elements of their individual inquiry activities (e.g., plant types, soil compositions) into their shared simulation, providing opportunities for collaborative discussion and knowledge integration. When students "unsnap" their tablets, their collaborative work will stay with them in a digital journal, for individual reflection or as a resource for future collaborative activities (with potentially new group members). Project curriculum units will help students see the connections between the science concepts and principles they are learning, as they iteratively work on their designs through a combination of individual, collaborative and whole class learning. This work will also develop new approaches that help teachers understand the state of the class when students are taking part open-ended biology investigations, and support the teacher classroom orchestration and facilitation. Project research findings, materials and software will be made available to interested teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers nationwide on the project website.

The project will research collaborative learning along three planesindividual, small group and whole classwith technologies and classroom teachers supporting learning in innovative ways. Research has shown that technology can support collaborative learning, but there is limited research on how it can support transitions between individual and collaborative learning. While research has also shown that collaborative or individual learning may be more beneficial depending on the task or learning goal, there are relatively few studies that examine the potential for learning when students move between these social planes. Further, as these configurations become increasingly complex, there is also the challenge of how to support teachers' orchestration and facilitation. Studies will focus around four main research questions: 1) How does engaging in personally relevant biology curriculum through user-driven investigations help students understand the underlying science content? 2) How are students using and sharing the work of others to develop their own understanding about the underlying science concepts? 3) How do designs that allow for the movement between individual, small group, and whole class configurations allow students to work as a learning community? 4) How does the technology platform support teachers in orchestrating and facilitating classroom activities? Project studies will follow a design-based research methodology, guided by the premise that learning in naturalistic settings is the product of multiple interacting variables that cannot be reduced to a small set of controlled factors. The research will be broken down across four main developmental arcs: Technology design and iteration; Facilitation, user testing, and co-design; Classroom implementation; and Research and analysis. Each of the designed technologies will be user tested in the lab prior to being deployed in the classroom. Part of the analysis will focus on how the different technologies (i.e., individual and connected tablets, the teacher orchestration tablet) support learning and collaboration in naturalistic settings. The project research framework provides a way to examine the usability, usefulness and impact of interactions in a multi-user collaborative context using a mixed-method approach with various quantitative measures and qualitative indicators. Teachers will be prepared to use the system through 2-week summer institutes, during which they will also participate in co-design of the curriculum and the technology. Project research findings, materials and software will be made available to interested teachers, administrators, policymakers, and researchers nationwide on the project website, as well as being disseminated to appropriate audiences via conference presentations and publications.

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