Project Profile

Building Enhanced Scientific Thinking through Modeling Ecosystems


An ongoing collaboration between the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will advance efforts of the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program to better understand and promote practices that increase students' motivations and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Specifically, this project will explore how a modeling-based curricular approach advances 4th and 5th grade students' understanding of science as a way of knowing. By interacting with simulation-based games to create and revise models based upon real-world experiences with local ecosystems, students will begin to reason with evidence and to make connections between local and global environmental patterns. To support modeling as an instructional strategy, teachers will participate in extensive professional development to deepen their understanding of ecological content, use of technological tools, and pedagogical shifts that facilitate model-based inquiry. Additional project outcomes will include eight new curriculum modules, new software modeling tools and simulation games, and evidence of student and teacher changes in knowledge and awareness of STEM careers. Taking a systemic approach and engaging all 4th and 5th grade students and their teachers in a demographically diverse school district, this project has potential for broadening participation and interest in STEM.

The research focus of this study will be to investigate the contextual factors found within a model-enhanced elementary science program which are most closely associated with student gains in understanding: 1) science as a way of knowing, 2) use of systems thinking and evidence-based reasoning, 3) conceptual change, and 4) interest in STEM careers. Approximately 1,400 4th and 5th grade students and 50 teachers will participate in the study over two school years. Data from multiple instruments (e.g., surveys, interviews, classroom observations, student projects, pre- and post-tests) and collected over multiple time points will be triangulated for assessing changes in student and teacher knowledge, as well as teacher practice. In addition, a subset of 125 students will be purposively sampled for a more focused exploration of the development of individual learning trajectories. Researchers will control dosage, systematic classroom, and instructional differences.


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Principal Investigator(s)
Co-Principal Investigator(s)
Primary Contact


Award Number
1508911 / 1513043
Project Duration
2015 - 2019
Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis, MO
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Project Work State
Target Gradespan(s)
Elementary school (K-5)
Project Setting(s)
Formal Education
Geographic Location(s)
Project Status
Additional Disciplines
Environmental Science - general
Additional Target Participants
Students eligible for Free/reduced price lunch
Black or African American
Hispanic or Latino