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As the nation faces a growing need to improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, a critical question must be addressed: Is it possible to create a more engaging STEM learning atmosphere in K–12 classrooms while encouraging deeper understanding of the material? The answer is: "Yes," with help from the right kinds of computer learning tools.

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These new computer learning tools—already under development at ISIS and being tested in some Tennessee schools allow students to explore, build, analyze, and reflect as they learn by modeling science phenomena. The students, in turn, use the modeling tools to answer relevant questions about the world around them, such as how to design a better fish tank, analyze traffic flow in crowded cities, or teach basic ecology concepts that describe the function of a pond ecosystem.

ISIS is rolling out these new technologies at an opportune time. The state of Tennessee is mandating the creation of more STEM high schools as part of the "Race to the Top" initiative. There is also a growing shortage of American university students in STEM disciplines.

"As systems used by humans become more complex, scientists and engineers need to build computational models to design and analyze these systems. It therefore makes sense to introduce ideas of computational thinking beginning as early as elementary school," said Gautam Biswas, professor of computer science and computer engineering.

Biswas is leading the development of two educational software projects: SimSelf (Simulation Environment Designed to Model and Scaffold Learners' Self-regulatory Skills to Optimize Complex Science Learning) and CTSiM (Computational Thinking with Scientific Modeling and Simulation). Both projects seek to improve student understanding of science and increase their interest in STEM disciplines by building computer-based models that explain how things work.

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"Science and mathematics help us understand and navigate the real world, whether you're a kindergartner watching fish swim in a tank, a middle school student who faces traffic congestion problems when driven to school, or a software engineer working to design a better aircraft monitoring system," Biswas said. "We use the knowledge gained from computer-aided, in-class exercises to solve problems, and we do this in a way that makes the learning task engaging and relevant."

The SimSelf program focuses on teaching better learning strategies and self-regulation skills as preparation for life-long learning. For example, students might be asked to explain the causes and effects of global warming or the regulation of human body temperatures. If the program detects that a student is relying too much on trial and error methods to build a model, the program guides him or her to develop more effective learning strategies through conversations with automated computer agents.

CTSiM focuses on teaching middle and high school students computational thinking skills to support modeling and analysis. It guides students to realize that many behaviors in the real world can be explained by a sense-and-act model. For example, if an animal is hungry (sense) it looks for food (act). Moreover, CTSiM reinforces the idea that people constantly make conditional decisions, such as deciding to take a different route when traffic on the current route is heavy.

"We've constructed a visual language that helps students model the behavior of agents, like a car or a fish, using computational constructs," Biswas explained. "When modeling a fish, a student needs to learn to model stem teachingcomputationally how the fish gains and loses energy, as well as how the fish impacts its surrounding ecosystem. Students can then use their model to answer questions and solve problems, such as how to build a better fish tank."

At the end of each day, SimSelf and CTSiM generate reports for classroom teachers. "We're not building systems to replace teachers, but instead we are using technology to make teachers more effective. It's hard for teachers to follow in detail the progress of 25+ students in their classes. Through our software programs, we collect data to provide a summary on individual students, as well as overall class performance for teachers at the end of the day. Teachers can use this information to make decisions on where to focus their teaching the next day," Biswas said.

Four high school teachers in Chattanooga and Nashville are working with Biswas' team to develop their own curricular units. Pilot projects in Nashville schools help students learn about the causes and effects of global warming and then apply what they've learned to solving real problems, such as how to streamline long drop-off lines at school. Another project helps middle school students model and learn about an ecosystem and use what they have learned to build and sustain an eco-column, which is an aqueous ecosystem built inside a two-liter soft drink bottle.

Biswas works closely with researchers at the nation's top education school, Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, including teaching and learning faculty members Pratim Sengupta and Doug Clark. While Peabody researchers understand how the education system works, ISIS engineers understand the practical constraints of converting ideas into technological solutions. Said Biswas, "It's a natural partnership."