EXP: SiMSAM: Bridging Student, Scientific, and Mathematical Models with Expressive Technologies

PIs: Michelle Wilkerson-Jerde, Brian Gravel
Tufts University
Award Details

The purpose of this project is to shed light on two important questions in science education and cyberlearning: (1) How can we study and support the ways in which students learn to use simulation and data analysis technologies as tools of scientific discourse? (2) What is the pedagogical potential of such an approach? The project explores the feasibility of a novel web-based modeling environment, SiMSAM, that will allow students in grades 5-8 to easily produce dynamic Stop-Action Motion animations that illustrate scientific events using everyday materials (e.g., construction paper, cotton balls, drawing, etc.) with which they are already familiar; analogous computer simulations using a novel visual interface that allows them to import and “give instructions” to images from their original animations; collect, analyze, and graph data generated by their simulations; and share, trade, and test their creations. Students use SiMSAM to explore kinetic molecular phenomena by completing activities that invite them to represent “unseen” events involving air pressure, sound propagation, and evaporation. Analysis focuses on new forms of learning afforded by the tool (especially the adoption of simulation and data analysis as tools of scientific discourse) and identifying potential shifts in students’ reasoning about causal mechanism in the modeled phenomena, their adoption of kinetic molecular theory as a conceptual model, and their understanding of the nature of scientific models in STEM disciplines. The project integrates contemporary learning theory regarding the value of students’ productive resources for reasoning about scientific and mathematical topics, model-based approaches in science and mathematics education, and the importance of computational simulation as a pedagogical and professional tool.

This project will prototype new technologies that will allow middle-school students to learn science through scientific modeling, an approach with potential for promoting deep understanding of the mechanisms underlying phenomena in the world. The software, called SimSAM, allows students to create animations and simulations of phenomena related to molecular kinetics – an important content area across grades K-16. The technology uses cross-platform, web-based technologies that do not require a special device or download and will thus be easily usable in schools without the need to download specialized software applications. The project’s products will include curriculum materials for promoting learning the particle theory of matter and software that can eventually become a robust toolkit for students to engage with a wide variety of dynamic scientific phenomena across the science curriculum.

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