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How children learn about complex systems

September 9, 2013

The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $999,000 to three Indiana University Bloomington faculty members for a unique effort intended to shed light on how children best learn about complex systems and how new technologies can best serve that learning.

Kylie Peppler and Joshua Danish, both assistant professors in the Learning Sciences program at the IU School of Education, and Armin Moczek, associate professor in the Department of Biology in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, are sharing the NSF grant. Specifically, their project will develop electronically enhanced puppets, or “e-puppets,” that allow students to simulate biological phenomena such as honeybees collecting nectar or ants scavenging for food. Work on “Design and Implementation (DIP) BioSim: Developing a Wearable Toolkit for Teaching Science Through Embodied Play” begins immediately.

Based on earlier work, the researchers found that children as young as kindergarteners can understand complex systems such as those typically taught in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areasĀ – even though they often prove difficult for older students and adults. The key to helping young children learn these systems is employing appropriate and familiar learning strategies.

“Young children are already apt to explore the world through play-acting and games, especially those that involve playground-like dynamics among a large group of peers,” Peppler says. “We find a lot of commonalities between this type of play and the embodied exploration found in more advanced forms of scientific study.”

The researchers will design e-puppets and accompanying curricular activities for students in kindergarten through third grade to experience biological simulations enhanced by computer technology. The goal is to create a toolkit of e-puppets with corresponding computer simulations that would lead to an early elementary school biology curriculum built around the tools.

The project builds on the successful “BeeSim” project, which demonstrated how such e-puppets could work in building a science curriculum. BeeSim employs e-puppets that look like honeybees and fit on a child’s hand like a glove. The puppets contain a wearable computer and wireless transmitter sewn into the fabric.

In BeeSim, the e-puppets teach young children about how honeybees collect nectar from a complex systems perspective. Parts of the bee light up when the bee collects nectar from flowers, which are also e-puppets, and other lights indicate when the bee is growing tired.

Children build empathy for the lives of bees because they are asked to nonverbally communicate complex amounts of information about nectar collection to fellow teammates in order to store enough food for winter. (To see a demonstration of the BeeSim in action and hear more from Peppler and Danish, watch this video.)

As part of the new BioSim project, Peppler, Danish, and Moczek will expand on the early prototypes to build a more complex system that involves large groups of 30 to 40 children. Such expansion provides youth with an even richer understanding of the systems at play in the natural world, incorporating predators, supply and demand, and additional roles in the ecosystem. Furthermore, this project will explore these same concepts across a number of additional complex systems, such as that of army ants. The researchers aim to uncover how the study of systems in one ecosystem prepares youth to understand systems more globally.

“We are particularly interested in exploring how our technology will provide students with a new way of looking at a system,” Danish says. “This allows us to determine how play-acting as a bee using an e-puppet may support them in reflecting on processes that are not as accessible when they view an entire honeybee hive in a traditional computer simulation and vice versa.”

When the project is complete, the researchers intend to make “how to” instructions publicly available so teachers and designers can create these e-puppets through readily available parts. Additionally, the team will explore how to commercially create these systems for broader accessibility. They envision partnering with science museums to make BioSim kits available for classroom teacher checkout. A partnership is already underway with the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health and Technology in Bloomington.