Collaborative Research: Learning About Complex Systems in Middle School by Constructing Structure-Behavior-Function Models

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

Our project studies what and how middle-school children learn about complex systems, the lesson plans used by middle-school teachers, and the mental models children develop as a result of classroom activities. The main goal is to promote the acquisition of deep understanding of the nature of complex ecological and biological systems at multiple levels of abstraction and aggregation by middle-school children. In particular, the project explores the use of structure-behavior-function (SBF) models in the establishment and maintenance of classroom fish-aquarium systems as the context for learning about complex systems.

Setting: 

Middle school science classes.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is comparative, and is designed to generate evidence that is descriptive [design research], and causal [experimental], including an intervention, which is an interactive tool called ACT for constructing and simulating structure-behavior-function (SBF) models of complex ecological and biological systems.

This project collects original data using diaries / journals / records kept by subjects, assessments of learning, achievement tests, observation [personal observation, videography, web logs], survey research [paper and pencil self-completion questionnaires, and face-to-face semi-structured/informal interviews], and includes pre- and post-tests. The analysis will include qualitative tests and statistical significance tests.

Findings: 

Use of the ACT tool has led to richer classroom discussions about the structure, behaviors and functions of complex systems. Further, construction of SBF models has led to deeper understanding of the fish-aquarium system.

Publications & Presentations: 

Cindy Hmelo-Silver, Rebecca Jordan, Marylee Demeter, Steven Gray, Lei Liu, Swaroop Vattam, Spencer Rugaber & Ashok Goel. Focusing on Function: Thinking Below the Surface of Complex Natural Systems. Science Scope, pp. 27-34, Summer 2008, NSTA.

Other Products: 

An interactive tool called ACT for constructing and simulating structure-behavior-function (SBF) models of complex ecological and biological systems