This exploratory project, involving The University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University, investigates the use of sensor-based technologies and general engineering approaches by fourth and fifth grade elementary students, and the effects of that use on how the students formulate research questions in environmental science and biological science and develop domain specific knowledge and concepts.

Teachers, students, and researchers are partnering with the research team to contribute to an iterative process that ensures a diversity of inputs to the approach and design, as they explore opportunities and challenges of using the sensing technologies while learning science. Several research questions are considered in this process and include: Which scientific characteristics are appropriate for elementary school students to grapple with, and which do they struggle with on a conceptual level? Which concepts or processes are more motivating for students? How can an already rich bounty of software technologies for gathering, storing, visualizing, and working with data in instrumented investigations of animal behavior be leveraged? What kinds of new tools are needed to extend those capabilities? How can activities be structured by educators to engage student interest and connect classroom work to field investigations? How can educators and technologists design instruction, materials, and learning technologies in ways that foster students' abilities to formulate scientific questions, choose measures, and plan effective investigations? What pragmatic and content area concerns need to be addressed for teachers to support engineering-enhanced ecological research? The research questions and analysis include observations of small group and classroom discourse, student work products, and reflective grounded interviews to investigate aspects of practice, operationalization of research questions, and examination of research designs, evidence-based argumentation, and explanatory processes.

For sensing technologies and their impact on learning to be fully understood, there are design factors that must be considered. This research is providing the field of learning sciences with some much needed information on design factors that involve sensor-based technologies and domain-based knowledge on scientific practices and engineering approaches to student learning. This interdisciplinary project makes contributions to the fields of learning technologies, engineering education, and biological sciences.

Project Report

Technologies extend our ability to investigate the natural world, but not every tool is fit for every job. An understanding the capabilities and limitations of technologies, and the kinds of questions that they can help answer, is fundamental to the contemporary practice of science. In this project, fifth and sixth students explored two technologies used by field ecologists to study the behaviors of small animals: motion-detecting field cameras (also known as "camera traps") and location tracking systems. The project resulted in the production of two multi-week curriculum units, customized tools to support students' investigations of animal behaviors, and research findings surrounding teaching and learning within those units. Intellectual merit In the "Neighborhood Game Park" unit, students investigate the capabilities of the camera through experiments on the playground, deploy the cameras in their schoolyards, parks, or backyards, and collect images of local animals that are "trapped" by the cameras. Using a tablet-based application developed through the project, students label and analyze the image sets that have been captured on memory cards in the cameras. By classifying and counting the animals captured under various conditions (e.g., day vs. night, open or covered area), students are able to develop evidence to answer research questions that they define and refine themselves. The unit was enacted in six classrooms over three cycles of development and research. Scientific inquiry begins with questions. In this project, researchers found that a cyclic process in which students learned more about the tools, saw more of their camera trap photos, and reviewed one another's research questions with respect to "answerability" (i.e., whether they could be answered using camera trap images) was effective in helping fifth graders improve their ability to develop researchable questions. Researchers also found that teachers were able to incorporate the technologies within contexts that differed in their ecology (urban and suburban) and in the organization of student activity (whole class vs. small group investigations). The tablet application, PhotoMAT (Photograph Management and Analysis Tool) provides a suite of capabilities—import of image sets, animation of image bursts, attachment of labels to images, and analysis of label frequency within selectable time windows—unavailable in commercial software. In the "Hunger Games" unit, students investigate animal behavior using location-tracking technologies. Project researchers developed a system that used radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies to keep track of electronic "tags" that were close to "readers" that could sense their presence. In the wild, scientists attach these tags to animals, and strategically place the readers to understand animals' movements (usually among food sources). The system was originally designed for use with a local population of rabbits, but they proved too transient. Instead, the project was brought indoors, with students using stuffed animal "avatars" with embedded tags to enact and reflect on strategies used in foraging for food. Students accumulate calories for their avatars by moving them among a set of simulated "food patches" placed around the classroom in short "bouts" of activity; their movements are automatically captured by the RFID system. Some patches are richer, and students initially flock there, but competition reduces how much each individual gets, so they go shopping for other patches. After each bout, students use a tablet application developed by the project team to retrace, visualize, and analyze the individual foraging decisions they made in the prior bout, and also to visualize and analyze the behavior of the population as a whole. In the enactment of the Hunger Games unit in three fifth grade classrooms, researchers found that student foraging behaviors consistently served as proxies for wild animal behaviors. Over multiple bouts, students developed increasingly effective individual foraging strategies, and collectively learned to "sort themselves out" among the available patches in order to ensure that more individuals would gain enough calories to survive the winter, closely approximating records of animal behavior in the wild. Researchers also found that incrementally aggregating and representing student activity (foraging) in real-time on public displays during bouts helped learners to work with similar representations after the bouts, when they were reflecting on and improving their performances as foragers. Broader impacts An explosion of new technologies promises to enable teachers to help young learners investigate their natural world in new ways. Understanding the benefits and limitations of those technologies to answer scientific questions is important for students whether or not they pursue careers in science, because it can help them to understand how scientists come to know what they know. At the same time, it's important for researchers and teachers to understand the practical and educational implications of using these technologies in classroom practice.

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University of Illinois at Chicago
United States
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