CASE STUDIES OF FIFTH-GRADE STUDENT MODELING IN SCIENCE THROUGH PROGRAMMING: COMPARISON OF MODELING PRACTICES AND CONVERSATIONS

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2004-04-26

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This is a descriptive case study investigating the use of two computer-based programming environments (CPEs), MicroWorldsTM (MW) and Stagecast CreatorTM (SC), as modeling tools for collaborative fifth grade science learning. In this study I investigated how CPEs might support fifth grade student work and inquiry in science.

There is a longstanding awareness of the need to help students learn about models and modeling in science, and CPEs are promising tools for this. A computer program can be a model of a physical system, and modeling through programming may make the process more tangible: Programming involves making decisions and assumptions; the code is used to express ideas; running the program shows the implications of those ideas.

In this study I have analyzed and compared students' activities and conversations in two after-school clubs, one working with MW and the other with SC. The findings confirm the promise of CPEs as tools for teaching practices of modeling and science, and they suggest advantages and disadvantages to that purpose of particular aspects of CPE designs.

MW is an open-ended, textual CPE that uses procedural programming. MW students focused on breaking down phenomena into small programmable pieces, which is useful for scientific modeling. Developing their programs, the students focused on writing, testing and debugging code, which are also useful for scientific modeling. SC is a non-linear, object-oriented CPE that uses visual program language. SC students saw their work as creating games. They were focused on the overall story which they then translated it into SC rules, which was in conflict with SC's object-oriented interface. However, telling the story of individual causal agents was useful for scientific modeling. Programming in SC was easier, whereas reading code in MW was more tangible. The latter helped MW students to use the code as the representation of the phenomenon rather than merely as a tool for creating a simulation.

The analyses also pointed to three emerging "frames" that describe student's work focus, based on their goals, strategies, and criteria for success. Emerging "frames" are the programming, the visualization, and the modeling frame. One way to understand the respective advantages and disadvantages of the two CPEs is with respect to which frames they engendered in students.

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