Project

Teaching and Learning Ecosystem Modeling

Investigating how middle schoolers develop understandings about ecosystem modeling.

This research project investigates the development of middle-school students’ understandings and practices of modeling in the context of investigations of variability and change in ecosystems. Specifically, this project seeks to understand how middle school students’ participation in scientific modeling informs their classroom-based citizen science investigations, and how enhancing teacher’s learning about modeling changes both the opportunities students have to participate in scientific modeling and their understanding of change within ecosystems. This research is conducted in partnership between researchers at GMRI, Vanderbilt University and Bowdoin College.

In particular, this project seeks to understand and identify:

  • How students interpret scientific models of ecosystem function and conceive of relationships across different models of the same system.
  • How students’ conceptions of variability inform their understandings of ecosystem models.
  • How students think about data modeling in the context of authentic and data-rich citizen science investigations.
  • How the development of teachers’ comfort and proficiency with modeling and variability changes students’ opportunities to participate in these practices.
  • How teachers’ engagement in a Professional Learning Community around modeling affects their comfort and proficiency with modeling ecosystems and variability.

Constructing, revising, applying, and defending models is part of the core work of science. Regardless of their domain or specialization, scientists build and refine models of the world and use them for the purpose of study. Models also serve as forms of scientific argument, used to support claims and counterclaims about the nature of physical reality. Despite the centrality of modeling to science, the practice of modeling is nearly absent from school curricula and, when models are present, they are often portrayed as fixed representations used for demonstration rather than for reasoning.

This research project will explore how middle-school students’ understanding of scientific models supports the co-development of their understanding of the statistical concepts of variability and change. Using citizen science-based ecosystems investigations developed by GMRI as a context for students’ modeling work, this research will study how and to what extent students’ use of different forms of modeling informs their classroom-based investigations in twelve collaborating classrooms. This project will also investigate how and to what extent the development of teachers’ comfort and proficiency with modeling changes students’ engagement in these forms of modeling and their understandings of ecosystems.

A key contribution of the project is leveraging this program’s emphasis on field research to ground the need to invent, revise, and contest models that account for ecosystem variability and change. The understandings that result from the project’s research will provide evidence toward, first, scaling the learning experiences to the network of 500+ teachers who are part of GMRI’s Ecosystem Investigation Network, and, second, replication by any program nationally that aims to engage students in data-rich, field-based ecological investigations.

Staff Contact


Amanda Dickes, Ph.D.
Amanda Dickes, Ph.D. Learning Scientist (207) 228-1677 [email protected]

Project Team

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