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Flooding the table with ideas: ECOCOLLAGE

A table topped with a large sheet of paper sat in the middle of a dark room.  It was illuminated by the only lights in the room, a projector and a web cam suspending from the ceiling six feet above the table. Printed on the paper was a grid, a legend and a stylized urban landscape. Several students hovered around and talked about where to place colored tokens on the paper landscape.

It looked like a board game. But this “game” is an innovative simulation prototype that Learning Sciences Research Institute Professor Leilah Lyons and her colleagues Emily Minor and Moira Zellner have designed. Integrating Study of Natural Resources, Human Impact, and Environmental Policy: Making Complex Systems Accessible for Secondary Learners, as it is called, is a $300,000-grant funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering program to develop an interactive complex system simulation nicknamed “EcoCollage.”

The goal is to help students thrive under the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards, the new set of voluntary and rigorous standards that, among other aims, encourages learners to improve their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills with systems models.  EcoCollage offers students a multidisciplinary, systems-based perspective on environmental science.

“But,” said Lyons, “how to fit these systems models into the context of schools is an open question – how the interactions can be designed to encourage learners to talk about what they’re trying and learning, how to help teachers keep a finger on the pulse of what students are exploring, and even how to measure the nature of learning that takes place while using systems models – that’s what I’m looking at here.”

Aimed primarily at Advanced Placement Environmental Science high school students, the complex systems simulation in EcoCollage permits small groups of user to make choices in placing green infrastructure elements within a nine-block city map.  Once the tokens that represent the elements are placed on the grid, the camera snaps a picture and the image is sent to a computer.  The computer interprets the placement, computes what would happen during an extreme rainfall, and projects the results back onto the paper.  Results include data such as flooding or the financial costs of a given scenario.  A second, digitally projected legend allows participants to retrieve scenarios created by other students.

“Does this—as a user—give you access to a piece of problem space you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reason about as effectively if the opportunity for interaction wasn’t present?” Lyons asked aloud.

That’s what she’s looking to find out.

Lyons also is studying the spatial reasoning of high school students, and has developed metrics from the project – a way to automatically detect what kind of spatial strategies the students are using, to set the groundwork for both automatic and teacher-led feedback.

Teachers who use traditional media, such as written assignments, can get a sense of how kids are doing in class, she explained. But it’s a lot harder for them to understand what kids have and haven’t tried when they explore with a simulation.

“Designing software for classrooms is not about replacing teachers,” Lyons said, “It’s about helping them do their jobs with these new forms of media.”

In addition to that, she added, “game-like interfaces, if they are used correctly, have a lot of power. “Without [us ever] presenting it as a game, kids have said it was a really fun game and gotten engaged with the problem,” she said.

“There are other edutainment games that keep kids engaged by aping tried-and-true game tropes, like ‘leveling up’ or what-have-you. Here, what’s neat is that they are persisting because we have presented the core urban planning problem in a way that makes solving the problem itself interesting – figuring out the dynamics of the water flow is the game.”

This perception helps sustain and nurture their involvement while encouraging deep learning.

The applications of EcoCollage extend beyond the classroom.

Minor and Zellner, first developed a water flow model for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency – the model EcoCollage is based on – which then used some recommendations and strategies from it.

Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technologies, a non-profit organization that  surveys water-flow in neighborhoods is in talks to collaborate with Lyons and her colleagues by using their simulation interface to help neighborhoods decide how they want to deal with flooding.

Lyons and her colleagues have also met with Chicago Agency for Planning, and representatives from various Illinois counties to work together on future projects.

“With the right access to the problem space anyone can be innovators just as well as the experts can,” she said.

— Andrew Gregory Krzak