Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Comparing Design Constraints to Support Learning in Technology-Guided Inquiry Projects

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Comparing Design Constraints to Support Learning in Technology-Guided Inquiry Projects

Article excerpt


In this study we investigate a blended, physical-virtual approach to inquiry learning projects that takes advantage of the motivational affordances of hands-on projects, as well as the guidance and scaffolding affordances of online learning. In particular, new educational standards (e.g., NGSS Lead States, 2013) recognize that hands-on projects can support mastery over disciplinary practices and understanding of core disciplinary ideas in an engaging context. The process of building a working model or artifact requires the learner to generate, integrate, and apply scientific ideas to solve real-world problems. Yet, despite this potential, open-ended design projects often draw students' attention to superficial structural or aesthetic issues, rather than underlying behaviors and functions (Hmelo, Holton, & Kolodner, 2000). On the other hand, online learning tools can structure content to make underlying mechanisms concrete (Edelson, Gordin, & Pea, 1999; Reiser, 2004). Furthermore, with adaptive mechanisms, online learning tools can provide guidance tailored to students' individual strengths and challenges (Linn et al., 2014). Bringing together physical and virtual modalities of inquiry, therefore, represents an opportunity to deliver on the enormous, but mostly untapped potential of hands-on projects in science classrooms.

Determining how to best coordinate between hands-on design and virtual tools is an open research question. We explore how a blended inquiry project may be designed so that virtual and physical components build upon each other and help students explore the underlying scientific mechanisms. In this paper, we combine a virtual and physical model in an inquiry activity to explore trade-offs between features of the design. Specifically, students build a self-propelled vehicle and use it to explore issues of energy conservation and transformation. In the target condition, students refine their design so that the vehicle reaches, but does not go beyond, a target. In the distance condition, students refine their design so that their vehicle goes as far as possible. The distance condition is consistent with students' typical goals for a vehicle. We discuss how both approaches take advantage of the virtual model and physical design to support learning. We hypothesize that the target condition will be better at helping students deliberately distinguish among their ideas.

Challenges with projects

Most students enjoy projects, but often fail to learn and apply core science principles to improve their designs (Crismond, 2011; Hmelo et al., 2000; Horn, 1922; Kanter, 2009; Karacalli & Korur, 2014; Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010). Rather, in many cases, projects are implemented as arts and crafts activities devoid of science content (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010). Many teachers avoid implementing hands-on projects, in favor of typical, lecture-based instruction.

Thus, engineering projects where students explore a distance goal may lead to different patterns of exploration than a project where students are encouraged to explore each variable in service of reaching a goal. For example, in the topic explored here, students are prompted to build a self-propelled vehicle using either a balloon or a wind-up device. A typical criterion for the success of their construction is the distance that the vehicle travels before stopping. We compare a typical distance condition to a target condition where students aim to get the self-propelled vehicle to stop at a target.

Supporting knowledge integration with web-based tools

While it is difficult for a single teacher to guide all students during project- based inquiry (Ozel, 2013; Tal, Krajcik, & Blumenfeld, 2006), web-based tools can make projects more successful by augmenting teacher guidance. Research on adaptive guidance with digital inquiry tools (e.g., Gobert, Sao Pedro, Raziuddin, & Baker, 2013; Leelawong & Biswas, 2008; Linn et al. …

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