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.

Computational models in K-12 science education can make scientific concepts more accessible and enhance student understanding of phenomena, particularly when students are able to engage in programming scientific models. Visual block-based programming interfaces offer new opportunities to bring computational modeling for STEM learning to elementary school. Immersive virtual environments and computational modeling platforms offer complementary ways to support student engagement and learning. 

The EcoMOD 3rd grade curriculum interweaves an immersive 3D virtual ecosystem and a 2D visual programming and modeling environment to support learning both ecosystem science concepts and computational modeling. The immersive 3D world lets students observe, explore, collect data, and travel in time, in a forest ecosystem that includes beavers building a dam. A point-of-view (POV) tool also lets students “be” a beaver.

With the 2D modeling tool, students construct an agent-based computational model of a beaver building a dam using domain-specific visual programming blocks. As students build and test their models, they observe emergent outcomes in the ecosystem, and make inferences about causal relationships between the elements of the ecosystem.

Virtual world screenshot of pond.
Virtual world screenshot of pond and water analysis tool.
2D modeling tool

Impact: Developing advanced scientific and computational knowledge in later grades depends on creating a strong foundation in the elementary school. EcoMOD offers practitioners an effective approach for integrating computational modeling, science content, and inquiry-based practices within elementary science instruction and demonstrates the feasibility and value of immersive learning technologies and agent-based modeling in classroom settings to increase knowledge and interest in STEM.

Findings: Findings from pilot studies show that the EcoMOD curriculum was successful at supporting growth in ecosystems science content, causal reasoning, and computational thinking, while at the same time reinforcing modeling as the practices through which those ideas developed. The EcoMOD curriculum was implemented in classrooms during March-June 2019 with 7 teachers and 150 students; full analysis of that data is currently in progress. Teachers reported high engagement from their students, and felt that the curriculum was feasible and supported students in inquiry-based learning, science content, causality, and programming.

We are currently revising EcoMOD curriculum materials, including lesson plans, teacher guides, and professional development materials, based on teacher feedback and classroom findings. These will be released with a stand-alone version of the EcoMOD software for widespread use under a free research license from Harvard University.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DRL-1639545 (2016-2020). 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.

This video was featured in the NSF 2019 STEM For All Video Showcase.


This video was featured in the NSF 2018 STEM For All Video Showcase.



Project Members

Chris Dede

Dr. Chris Dede

Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies
Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE). His fields of scholarship include... Read more about Chris Dede
Tina Grotzer

Dr. Tina Grotzer

Principal Research Scientist in Education
Tina Grotzer is a Faculty Member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and and Principal Research Scientist at Project Zero. She directs the Causal... Read more about Tina Grotzer
Amy Kamarainen

Dr. Amy Kamarainen

Education and Station Coordinator for the Salmon Coast Field Station in British Columbia, Canada

Amy Kamarainen is an ecosystem scientist who applies her understanding of ecosystems science and research to the design and evaluation of technologies...

Read more about Amy Kamarainen
Amanda Dickes

Dr. Amanda Dickes

Learning Scientist | Gulf of Maine Research Institute
Amanda Dickes worked as a postdoctoral research fellow on the EcoMOD project at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the design of learning environments... Read more about Amanda Dickes
Joseph Reilly

Joseph Reilly

Doctoral Student, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Joseph Reilly is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he has worked as a research assistant on the EcoMOBILE, EcoXPT, and... Read more about Joseph Reilly
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