Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

An atom is known by the company it keeps: Content, representation and pedagogy within the epistemic revolution of the complexity sciences
by Blikstein, Paulo, Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2009, 382; 3355751
Abstract (Summary)

The goal of this dissertation is to explore relations between content, representation, and pedagogy, so as to understand the impact of the nascent field of complexity sciences on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning. Wilensky & Papert coined the term “structurations” to express the relationship between knowledge and its representational infrastructure. A change from one representational infrastructure to another they call a “restructuration.” The complexity sciences have introduced a novel and powerful structuration: agent-based modeling. In contradistinction to traditional mathematical modeling, which relies on equational descriptions of macroscopic properties of systems, agent-based modeling focuses on a few archetypical micro-behaviors of “agents” to explain emergent macro-behaviors of the agent collective.

Specifically, this dissertation is about a series of studies of undergraduate students’ learning of materials science, in which two structurations are compared (equational and agent-based), consisting of both design research and empirical evaluation. I have designed MaterialSim, a constructionist suite of computer models, supporting materials and learning activities designed within the approach of agent-based modeling, and over four years conducted an empirical inves3 tigation of an undergraduate materials science course. The dissertation is comprised of three studies: Study 1 - diagnosis . I investigate current representational and pedagogical practices in engineering classrooms. Study 2 - laboratory studies. I investigate the cognition of students engaging in scientific inquiry through programming their own scientific models. Study 3 - classroom implementation. I investigate the characteristics, advantages, and trajectories of scientific content knowledge that is articulated in epistemic forms and representational infrastructures unique to complexity sciences, as well as the feasibility of the integration of constructionist, agent-based learning environments in engineering classrooms.

Data sources include classroom observations, interviews, videotaped sessions of model-building, questionnaires, analysis of computer-generated logfiles, and quantitative and qualitative analysis of artifacts.

Results shows that (1) current representational and pedagogical practices in engineering classrooms were not up to the challenge of the complex content being taught, (2) by building their own scientific models, students developed a deeper understanding of core scientific concepts, and learned how to better identify unifying principles and behaviors in materials science, and (3) programming computer models was feasible within a regular engineering classroom.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Wilensky, Uri
Commitee: Abrahamson, Dor, Gomes, Louis, Sherin, Bruce
School: Northwestern University
Department: Education and Social Policy - Learning Sciences
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 70/05, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Educational technology, Science education, Higher education
Keywords: Agent-based modeling, Complexity sciences, Constructionism, Engineering education, Knowledge representations, Project-based learning
Publication Number: 3355751
ISBN: 978-1-109-15072-8
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