The EcoMOD (Model/Modify, Observe, Design) research project explores the power of immersive virtual environments to support computational thinking and ecosystem science learning in elementary grades. Computational thinking and scientific modeling have been incorporated as essential practices for STEM education in the Next Generation Science Standards. Integrating modeling into the elementary science curriculum offers the potential to meet important 21st century learning goals, including understanding causal relationships in complex systems and infusing computational thinking into disciplinary contexts. EcoMOD addresses this challenge of merging computational thinking and scientific modeling within elementary science classrooms. The work blends an immersive virtual environment with a computational modeling and programming platform to support learning of ecosystems science, complex causality and computational thinking in the third and fourth grades.

The EcoMOD curriculum interweaves an immersive 3D ecosystem and a visual block-based programming environment. Students observe and explore a virtual forest, collecting data, traveling in time and noting changes in the ecosystem. Role-playing tools scaffold students’ understanding of specific organism behaviors. In integrated programming activities, students construct agent-based models. Students test and debug their computational models, and observe their agent’s interactions within a 2D model of the ecosystem, in which they see the emergent impacts of their agent’s behaviors. Model outcomes help students link individual organism behaviors to indirect and emergent system level impacts, in turn scaffolding the development of more sophisticated theories regarding the complex causal relationships within the ecosystem.

A pilot study of the EcoMOD tools and curriculum was conducted between April and June of 2018 in one third grade and one fourth grade classroom from urban school districts in the Northeast United States. Participating schools and teachers taught the EcoMOD curriculum for 15 days during their regular science block. The pilot version of the curriculum achieved many of the project’s learning and motivational objectives, as evidenced by student interviews, pre/post surveys, classroom video and programming artifacts. Analysis of pilot data is ongoing and being used to inform the modification of the software tools and curriculum for use in 2018-19.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DRL-1639545. 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.