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Advancing Ecosystems Science Education via Situated Collaborative Learning in Multi-User Virtual Environments

Year: 2008
Name of Institution:
Harvard University
Goal: Development and Innovation
Principal Investigator:
Dede, Christopher
Award Amount: $1,500,000
Award Period: 3 years
Award Number: R305A080141


Purpose: Content knowledge about ecosystems is an important strand of life science standards. Further, the processes underlying ecosystems exemplify sophisticated causal mechanisms (e.g., systems dynamics) foundational for advanced science and mathematics understandings. This project will develop a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE) ecosystem science curriculum centered on middle school National Science Education Standards (NSES).

Project: The investigators will design a virtual environment focused on ecosystems. After initial prototyping and iterative stages of technological development, the investigators will determine the curriculum's feasibility and usability among teachers and students in classroom settings, as well as the potential promise of the intervention for improving students' learning.

Products: This project will develop the EcoMUVE curriculum, consisting of two ecosystems actualized as MUVEs with embedded learning support. The EcoMUVE content will be integrated into a larger curricular structure for use with grade six and seven life science classrooms. The curriculum will be implemented in approximately ten 50-minute class periods. The investigators will also develop teacher training and support materials, student handouts and accompanying curriculum materials, and classroom assessments for teachers to chart students' progress and assign grades.

Structured Abstract

Purpose: Although ecosystems form a central component of middle school life science instruction, students often hold inaccurate interpretations about ecosystems' structural patterns and systemic causality. Intended to improve the knowledge and understanding of causal mechanisms acquired by students from current, largely textbook-based curricula, this project will develop a MUVE ecosystems science curriculum centered on middle school NSES.

Setting: The investigators will collect data from two districts (one urban and one semi-urban) that have diverse populations of students representative of the full spectrum of U.S. classroom contexts.

Population: The project population will include 10 teachers and a diverse group of sixth- and seventh-grade students representative of typical variability in U.S. students on demographic characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, native language, and SES.

Intervention: This project will develop the EcoMUVE curriculum, consisting of two ecosystems actualized as MUVEs with embedded learning support and integrated into a larger curricular structure, for grade six and seven life science classrooms. Students will use the MUVE curriculum over approximately ten 50-minute class periods. MUVEs are similar to some online multi-player games in that they enable multiple participants to access virtual worlds simultaneously and to utilize digital artifacts. Participants navigate these worlds through their graphical representations (avatars), interacting with other students and with computer-based agents to facilitate collaborative learning activities of various types. Each ecosystem MUVE in this project will offer novel opportunities for learning, engagement, and assessment, such as illustrating the situated geospatial relationships in an ecosystem; provide interactive, immersive depictions of plant and animal behavior; and generate rich datastreams about student performances. The intervention will include a two-day workshop for teachers, a guide and accompanying curricular materials (handouts, readings), and assessment instruments.

Research Design and Methods: The investigators will use an iterative design process informed by consultation with an advisory panel of ecosystems scientists and a team of teachers. In Year 1, the project will develop a detailed overview of the curriculum, followed by prototypes. In Year 2, the team will employ a design-based research methodology to conduct a series of evaluation pilots with two to four classrooms. This formative research will influence the re-design of curricular materials and the MUVE environments. In Year 3, the team will conduct rigorous reliability tests of the software in ten classrooms. The team will also conduct research to investigate factors that lead to adoption and successful implementation among teachers and students, as well as to examine student learning. The researchers will use classroom observations, interview and focus groups, student and teacher surveys, and discussion boards to collect data to inform the development process.

Key Measures: Practicality of use and implementation are the key outcome measures for the feasibility of the design. Other key outcome measures will test content (measures are based on standards), motivation (measure of students' engagement with learning experiences), and feasibility (a composite that measures teachers' feelings about the practicality and value of use for the curriculum).

Data Analytic Strategy: The investigators will employ a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. The investigators will use qualitative data to build case studies of implementations. The investigators will triangulate data from interviews, observations, event data files, and surveys in order to characterize feasibility in terms of usability, implementation, and adoption. The project will conduct regression analyses to investigate significant difference in pre/post measures in student learning.

Products and Publications

Book chapter

Clarke-Midura, J., and Yudelson, M.V. (2013). Towards Identifying Students' Causal Reasoning Using Machine Learning. Artificial Intelligence in Education: Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 7926 (pp. 704–707). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Chen, J.A., Metcalf, S.J., and Tutwiler, M.S. (2014). Motivation and Beliefs about the Nature of Scientific Knowledge Within an Immersive Virtual Ecosystems Environment, Journal of Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39: 112–123.

Dede, C. Grotzer, T. A., Kamarainen, A., Metcalf, S, and Tutwiler, M. S. (2012). Ecomobile: Blending Virtual and Augmented Realities for Learning Ecosystems Science and Complex Causality. Journal of Immersive Education.

Grotzer, T.A., Kamarainen, A., Tutwiler, M.S, Metcalf, S, and Dede, C. (2013). Learning to Reason About Ecosystems Dynamics Over Time: The Challenges of an Event-Based Causal Focus. BioScience, 63 (4), 288–296.

Metcalf, S.J., Kamarainen, A., Tutwiler, M.S., Grotzer, T.A. and Dede, C. J. (2013). Teacher Perceptions of the Practicality and Effectiveness of Immersive Ecological Simulations as Classroom Curricula. International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments. 4 (3), 66–77.

Nongovernment report, issue brief, or practice guide

Clarke-Midura, J., Dede, C., and Norton, J. (2011). Next Generation Assessments for Measuring Complex Learning in Science. Boston: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy.


Code, J., Clarke-Midura, J., Zap, N., and Dede, C. (2011). Student Perceptions of Immersive Virtual Environments for the Meaningful Assessment of Learning. In Proceedings of EdMedia: World Conference on Educational Media and Technology 2011 (pp. 358–367). Lisbon, Portugal: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.