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A Sustainable Computer Modeling Curriculum for Mastery of Core Biology Concepts and Computational Thinking by Secondary School Students


As computing has become integral to the practice of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the STEM+Computing program seeks to address emerging challenges in computational STEM areas through the applied integration of computational thinking and computing activities within STEM teaching and learning in early childhood education through high school (preK-12). This project will engage high school biology teachers in developing and testing a novel approach to integrating computational thinking with the disciplinary content of a high school biology curriculum. The project will create a sequence of curriculum modules that teach students computer modeling skills using an intuitive visual programming platform as they produce applications to model fundamental concepts in biology, such as trophic pyramids, enzyme activity, ecological webs, genetic ratios, and biochemical cycles. These modules will be deployed in several school districts to measure the impact of the curriculum modules on student gains in computational thinking skills, mastery in understanding of biological systems, and interests in STEM fields and computation-based careers. The outcomes of this project will provide insights into effective strategies for encouraging students from groups underrepresented in STEM fields to succeed in STEM and computer-based education and STEM career tracks. This project will also provide opportunities for STEM teachers to learn about computer modeling of natural phenomena and how to integrate computational thinking into the subjects they teach.
This 3-year, design-based research project will engage high school teachers in designing, deploying, and evaluating a modified, computation-infused high school biology curriculum. Teachers in seven high schools will work with the project team to iteratively develop, implement, and revise a set of curriculum modules for teaching selected components of a general biology curriculum. The modules will employ computer modeling exercises using MIT App Inventor, an intuitive, visual programming environment that enables users to build apps for smartphones and tablets. Validated measurement instruments, classroom surveys, systematic observations, student-built applications, project team feedback, formal tests based on in-class and out-of-class learning, and performance on New York state exams will be used to gauge the effectiveness of the revised curriculum modules and to test the hypotheses guiding the project. Quantitative analyses of learning processes and outcomes will be based on longitudinal measures of student and teacher attitude change, engagement, collaborative process, conceptual and procedural knowledge in coding and in biology, and student choices of STEM and computer course electives. Qualitative analyses will include an examination of pedagogical culture within the classrooms and content analyses of student artifacts, including in-class and homework assignments and coded audio records of collaborative activity. The key hypotheses being tested by this project are: (1) Students will gain greater insights into the nature of real-world dynamic biological systems as they build abstract models and explore the properties of these models through visual programming in the App Inventor environment; and (2) The activity of computer modeling itself will increase student curiosity and motivation to learn more about computer science approaches to problem solving.