Author Archives: Amy Pallant

The National Science Foundation awards grant to study virtual worlds that afford knowledge integration

The Concord Consortium is proud to announce a new project funded by the National Science Foundation, “Towards virtual worlds that afford knowledge integration across project challenges and disciplines.” Principal Investigator Janet Kolodner and Co-PI Amy Pallant will explore how the design of project challenges and the contexts in which they are carried out can support knowledge integration, sustained engagement, and excitement. The goal is to learn how to foster knowledge integration across disciplines when learners encounter and revisit phenomena and processes across several challenges.

Aerial Geography and Air QualityIn this model, students explore the effect of wind direction and geography on air quality as they place up to four smokestacks in the model.

We envision an educational system where learners regularly engage in project-based education within and across disciplines, and in and out of school. We believe that, with such an educational approach, making connections across learning experiences should be possible in new and unexplored ways. If challenges are framed appropriately and their associated figured worlds (real and virtual) and scaffolding are designed to afford it, such education can help learners integrate the content and practices they are learning across projects and across disciplines. “Towards virtual worlds” will help move us towards this vision.

This one-year exploratory project focuses on the possibilities for knowledge integration when middle schoolers who have achieved water ecosystems challenges later attempt an air quality challenge. Some students will engage with EcoMUVE, where learners try to understand why the fish in a pond are dying, and others will engage with Living Together from Project-Based Inquiry Science (PBIS), where learners advise about regulations that should be put in place before a new industry is allowed to move into a town. A subset of these students will then encounter specially crafted air quality challenges based on High-Adventure Science activities and models. These, we hope, will evoke reminders of experiences during their water ecosystem work. We will examine what learners are reminded of, the richness of their memories, and the appeal for learners of applying what they are learning about air quality to better address the earlier water ecology challenge. Research will be carried out in Boston area schools.

Sideview Pollution Control Devices In this model, students explore the effects of installing pollution control devices, such as scrubbers and catalytic converters, on power plants and cars. Students monitor the level of primary pollutants (brown line) and secondary pollutants (orange line) in the model over time, via the graph.

The project will investigate:

  1. What conditions give rise to intense and sustained emotional engagement?
  2. What is remembered by learners when they have (enthusiastically) engaged with a challenge in a virtual figured world and reflected on it in ways appropriate to learning, and what seems to affect what is remembered?
  3. How does a challenge and/or virtual world need to be configured so that learners notice—while not being overwhelmed by—phenomena not central to the challenge but still important to making connections with content outside the challenge content?

Our exploration will help us understand more about the actual elements in the experiences of learners that lead to different emotional responses and the impacts of such responses on their memory making and desires.

Lessons we learn about conditions under which learners form rich memories and want to go back and improve their earlier solutions to challenges will form some of the foundations informing how to design virtual worlds and project challenges with affordances for supporting knowledge integration across projects and disciplines. Exemplar virtual worlds and associated project challenges will inform design principles for the design and use of a new virtual world genre — one with characteristics that anticipate cross-project and cross-discipline knowledge integration and ready learners for future connection making and knowledge deepening.

Hitting the Wall

Gas laws are generally taught in high school chemistry. Students learn that Boyle’s law, for instance, can be expressed as P1V1=P2V2, where P is pressure and V is volume.

From the equation, it’s clear that there is an inverse relationship between the gas pressure and volume, but do students understand the molecular mechanism behind this relationship?

Since students are programmed to plug and chug, if you give them, say, P1, V1, and P2, they can find the numeric value of V2. Although students can get the correct answer, teachers have told us that their students don’t really understand the gas laws because they don’t have a mental model of what’s happening. Gases are, after all, invisible! Nor can students see volume or pressure.

Molecular Workbench makes the gases, volume, and pressure visible. With a new set of Next-Generation Molecular Workbench interactives, students can experiment with increasing the pressure on a gas to see why the gas volume decreases.

The “What is Pressure?” interactive (above) shows the inside (yellow atoms) and outside (pink atoms) of a balloon. (Even the velocities of the individual atoms are visible with vectors!) The green barrier represents the wall of the balloon.

Students learn that pressure is nothing more than molecular collisions with a barrier. In the beginning, atoms hitting the balloon wall on either side move it just a tiny bit—transferring some of their kinetic energy to the barrier. At equilibrium, the balloon wall remains (relatively) stationary. (Go ahead and run it to see!)

But if you add atoms to the balloon, the balloon wall moves out; more atoms means that there is increased pressure pushing outwards on the barrier. Since the number of atoms on the outside of the balloon hasn’t changed, the pressure pushing inwards is the same as it was before. With unbalanced forces, you get net movement.

With barriers, we can also measure the pressure caused by those molecular collisions.

In the “Volume-Pressure Relationship” interactive (above), students see a visual representation of Boyle’s law.

Other models allow students to investigate all the relationships of Charles’s law (V1T2=V2T1), Gay-Lussac’s law (P1/T1=P2/T2), and Avogadro’s law (V1/n1=V2/n2).

And, of course, all of these relationships together make up the Ideal Gas Law (PV=nRT). Explore gas laws today with some HTML5 molecular models!

If we build it, will they come? Feedback from the field.

The Molecular Workbench team has a unique opportunity—take our wonderful software and increase access to it. But we know that this is no “Field of Dreams” task. If we build it, will they come?

We’re using The Lean Startup as a guide to optimize our software for the Web. It’s encouraging us to experiment to see which ideas are brilliant and which are crazy and get feedback from users early. We’re thinking about how not to assume we know what people want, but instead go and find out, and be prepared to shift our ideas. In short: Test. Iterate. Repeat.

So we held our first focus group with several Rhode Island teachers who have been loyal users of Molecular Workbench. Our goal was to get feedback on ways to make our new browser-based MW more valuable to them. We asked them to evaluate new designs (we invite you to take our survey, too). We also asked about tone and length of activities. And the teachers described ways they’d like to select and integrate MW models and activities into their classrooms.

Two major themes emerged: flexibility and student accountability. This confirmed what we knew about the classroom: teachers have limited time, a wide range of learners, a diversity of classes, and pressures around high-stakes tests. We’re now working on prototyping ways to incorporate teacher feedback into our Web-based MW models and activities. We’ll share our progress on our website.

And, of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.