The Encore Lab is using the Embedded Phenomena (EP) and the Knowledge Community and Inquiry (KCI) frameworks to investigate technologies designed to foster collaborative knowledge construction in elementary science classrooms. In EP environments, a media-rich representation of a scientific phenomena is mapped on to the physical space of a classroom for an extended period of time.

Students participate in a whole-class investigation of the simulated phenomena. Our most recent investigation, a WallCologyunit, was nine weeks long! Students observed the organisms contained within four habitats, visible through a computer monitor or “portal” affixed to each wall of the classroom. Students entertained the notion that “bugs” exist behind the drywall of their classroom walls. The simulation depicts two vegetation species and several organisms, which are in various stages of their life cycle (egg, larva, pupa, and adult). EP gives students an opportunity to observe an approximation of real scientific phenomena in their own classrooms (extended field work is impractical!). In the simulation, like in life, things happen when they happen (i.e., an invasive species might enter the ecosystem overnight, or even at recess!).

Students at a WallCology portal, examining the digital ecosystem of Habitat 3
Students at a WallCology portal, examining the digital ecosystem of Habitat 3

The WallCology unit was co-designed with teachers from Toronto, and researchers and technologists from U of T and UIC. In addition, Tom Moher (project co-PI) enlisted the help of a subject matter expert (evolutionary ecologist, Joel Brown) to help us make sure that the digital ecosystem was consistent with real-life biological principles . We targeted specific curriculum goals in the life sciences including population ecologies, food web relationships, and life cycles. Our team developed a suite of “apps” that students used to collect observations and to share their ideas and theories concerning the “bugs” that they were investigating. Our software collected these data and re/presented to students in aggregate form. One visualization presented “tallies” of pair-wise relationships (e.g., “who eats who”). Another visualization showed population trends over-time, based on the count inputs of students by species and date. The knowledge community used these representations to construct understandings of the relationships among the organisms. The image below shows a sortable table of observations that students made at each of the four habitats. Students could view their observations and those of their peers in real-time on their tablets. The same data was available on the classroom’s interactive whiteboard.

The teacher references one of the aggregate screens (descriptions of the morphology and behaviour of organisms) during a whole-class discussion.

This work is part of a collaboration between two programs of research known as EPIC (Embedded Phenomena for Knowledge Communities). The EP framework was developed by Tom Moher and the Learning Technologies Group at UIC. The Knowledge Community and Inquiry model is being investigated by Jim Slotta and his students at the Encore Lab at OISE/UT. In EPIC classrooms, students work together as active members of a knowledge community, sharing information, reasoning together, and solving problems. Their work is supported by networked technologies that have been carefully designed to scaffold investigations of curriculum topics. Over time, a substantial knowledge base is created from these multiple, structured observations, and the knowledge community is able to draw from it during their ongoing inquiry of the EP.