Major Project Applies Cutting-Edge Computer Modeling to Science Learning

Major Project Applies Cutting-Edge Computer Modeling to Science Learning

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SESP professors Uri Wilensky and David Figlio are launching a major innovative project to develop computer-based curricula that will help young students learn science. A $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation is supporting the work.

“Enabling Modeling and Simulation-Based Science in the Classroom” uses cutting-edge computational methods to teach science topics at middle and high school levels. Classroom-ready units will be produced on the topics of evolution, population biology, kinetic molecular theory and electromagnetism. 

The four-year project brings to the classroom three state-of-the-art computer technologies: agent-based computer modeling, real-world sensing and classroom network technology. All of these technologies are built on the widely used NetLogo platform developed by Wilensky to enable learners to explore and create simulations.

Agent-based modeling is a type of computer simulation that is used to examine how the behavior of systems with many interacting individuals unfolds over time. Sensor technology captures real-time data from multiple sources. Finally, network technology allows students to participate in simulations together, individually controlling elements of simulations and discussing their interpretations of what happens.

“These technologies have great potential to transform STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education. ... One argument for incorporating these technologies in the classroom is their increasing importance in scientific practice,” according to the researchers. "In the classroom, these technologies enable students to do real science, and are also very engaging to the students,” Wilensky says.

The science topics that were chosen are both central to science and difficult for students to understand using conventional teaching methods, but they lend themselves to a complex-systems and modeling approach.

As a way to ensure maximum impact, research will guide the development of curriculum. First, the researchers will design classroom modeling units, using state-of-the-art technology. Then they will conduct a study to determine the effects of different aspects of the curriculum and refine the units.

“Most studies of innovative technologies look only at what's happening in a handful of classrooms where teachers are most invested. This project provides a rare look at what happens when we take innovations to scale,” says Figlio. Seven schools are currently participating in the project, encompassing a large number of underserved students. 

Researchers from Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Stanford universities are collaborating on this four-year project with the education technology company Inquire Learning.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 7/12/11