Academic journal article Science and Children

Virtual Modeling: Fifth-Grade Students Use Computer Programming to Create Models That Help Them Understand Patterns in Earth and Sky

Academic journal article Science and Children

Virtual Modeling: Fifth-Grade Students Use Computer Programming to Create Models That Help Them Understand Patterns in Earth and Sky

Article excerpt

Inquiry has been the recommended central teaching strategy since the 1996 National Science Education Standards. With the 2013 release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), inquiry is now explicitly articulated as eight essential Science and Engineering Practices that scientists employ when investigating and building models about natural phenomena (NGSS Lead States). One of these Science Practices, Developing and Using Models, is likely to be a new feature and a significant change for many elementary teachers and students.

The NGSS emphasize that "the practice of modeling will need to be taught throughout the year and across the entire K-12 experience" and outline a succinct learning progression for developing and using models in the K-5 classroom (NGSS Lead States 2013, p. 6):

* K--2: Modeling in K--2 builds on prior experience and progresses to include identifying, using, and developing models that represent concrete events or design solutions.

* 3-5: Modeling in 3-5 builds on K-2 models and progresses to building and revising simple models and using models to represent events and design solutions.

Much of the modeling done by scientists is accomplished using sophisticated computer program models. What age-appropriate strategies can K-5 teachers use to embed modeling in their teaching practices so students use and design models as a scientist would?

As STEM educators, we chose to answer this question by exploring the use of Etoys as a computer-modeling tool to support fifth-grade students' understanding of an essential NGSS Earth and Space Science Disciplinary Core Idea, four Science and Engineering Practices, and two Crosscutting Concepts (see "Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards," p. 35).

Etoys and EIMA

Etoys is a free, easy-to-learn, modeling and programming environment suitable for use in grades 2-12. Students begin by drawing objects using a simple paint tool. They then move these objects manually or drag and drop computer script tiles to "program" the behavior of their objects. See Internet Resources for an Etoys video tutorial. The program can be downloaded and installed for use on both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. There is also an Etoys To Go version that can be run by simply downloading the program onto a flash drive. We found this option preferable as you don't need to run the gauntlet of district technology approvals. With this method, all student projects are conveniently saved onto their own flash drives, students can share their work with family, and those who wish to can continue exploring Etoys outside of class.

To organize the modeling experience for students, we used the Engage-Investigate-Model-Apply (EIMA) "modeling-centered" framework (Table 1) that employs four distinct learning episodes: Engage, Investigate, Model, and Apply (Schwarz and Gwekwerere 2007). Schwarz et al. (2009) argue that this framework helps scaffold student learning as they progress through four levels of understanding models as a tool for predicting and explaining phenomena (Table 2).

In the engage phase of this lesson, students collect data to construct a model--Level 1. In the investigate phase, students construct a model using Etoys and use the model to support their thinking about patterns in the Earth and sky--Level 2. In the model phase, students begin to identify the advantages and disadvantages their Etoys model provides when compared to the actual phenomena - Level 3. Finally, in the apply phase, students consider a variety of models to support their thinking Level 4.


Co-teaching in a fifth-grade classroom of 27 students, we began by asking students where the Sun rises and sets in relation to the school playground: "If you are standing on the playground at sunrise, where would you see the Sun? If you are standing on the playground at sunset, where would you see the Sun? …

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