Understanding how ecosystems work is important for citizens in making decisions and for students who aspire to become scientists. It requires understanding of complex causality, possible unintended consequences, and the strengths and limitations of various investigative approaches. Ecosystem concepts are difficult to learn and to teach due to the amount of information, many interacting components, and non-linear patterns involved. They are particularly difficult to teach in classrooms because ecosystems involve complexities such as large-scale problems, populations of organisms, and change over extended time frames. Learning when and how ecosystem scientists employ different approaches can help learners understand the content and process of science, yet it remains challenging to meaningfully teach these concepts in schools.

EcoXPT builds on our work with EcoMUVE, but goes beyond observational inquiry to explore the diverse investigative strategies practiced in the field of ecosystems science, through adding tools modeled on modern approaches and integrated with iterative cycles of experimentation, reflection, and revision. Interviews with ecosystem scientists have supported our development of EcoXPT so that students can authentically test their own hypotheses so as to better understand causal patterns they could previously only observe, thereby extending their comprehension of underlying causal relationships. This project is developing a meta-structure of investigative options, including experimentation at multiple scales, that represent a hierarchy of leverage points open to manipulation in the virtual world.

Providing students with multiple approaches serves two purposes: 1) students’ selections among approaches offers a valuable diagnostic measure for assessing their conceptual understanding of the causal relationships affecting the ecosystem issue at hand, and 2) having multiple options can provide a framework within which students can participate in an iterative cycle of experimentation, reflection, and revision.

In the first two years of the project, we have developed and piloted forms of experimentation that entail greater complexity and environmental contextualization. Situated investigative tools let students interpret results contextually and integrate their findings with other sources of evidence--including observations and data collected in the virtual world--to build hypotheses. Virtual tools designed for investigation within EcoXPT include experimental fish tanks, outdoor mesocosm pools, molecular simulations, and chemical tracers to show the flow of runoff. EcoXPT also includes an interactive concept map tool to support students in representing their ideas about the causal relationships in the ecosystem.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant #1416781. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.