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Programming in K-12 Science Classrooms

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students programming ViMAP-Ants models

Fourth-grade students in Tennessee programming ViMAP-Ants models in order to conduct simulation experiments and develop mathematical explanations about ecological interdependence. The programming commands were developed for them by 8th-grade students.

Credit: Pratim Sengupta

Introducing computational modeling as the way of "doing science" in K-12 classes can greatly increase students' participation in computing.3,4 But, how can K-12 science teachers, who may have little or no programming experience, teach such classes? And, how can teachers adopt computational modeling in a manner that not only deepens science learning, but also supports the development of authentic programming experiences?

Since 2012, we have been conducting studies in which 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th-grade (ages 8-10, and 13 years old) public school teachers and students, with no prior experience in programming, use programming as part of their regular science curricula throughout the academic year. The students we worked with were predominantly African American (100% in 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, and 70% in 8th grade), and came from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. The programming language used by these teachers is ViMAP, an agent-based visual programming language and modeling platform (see that uses NetLogo4 as its simulation engine. In agent-based programming, users create simulations by programming the behaviors of, and interactions between, computational agents. We designed ViMAP specifically: to enable yearlong curricular integration of programming as a means for modeling and simulating relevant scientific phenomena in K-12 classrooms using visual programming; and to create pathways to transition from visual to text-based programming in higher grades. Students in 3rd-5th grades used visual programming, while students in 8th grade used both visual and text-based programming.


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