Understanding environmental sustainability as acomplex system: Use of an agent-based participatory watershed simulation

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Journal/Book Title/Conference

Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association

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Understanding the functions and properties of complex systems is necessary for participants pursuing education and careers in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) because the fundamental constructs of complex systems apply across many domains and are at the heart of the solutions to many global issues facing the world today (National Science Foundation, 2009). Complex systems understanding has been a persistently difficult set of concepts for participants to learn and the science community, despite years of effort, has been unsuccessful in achieving complex systems understanding at the undergraduate level. There is a need for new technologies to be developed to help improve the way complex systems understanding happens and evidence that agent-based simulations can be an effective learning tool in this context. The purpose of this study was to examine complex systems understanding with the use of an agent-based simulation called the UVA Bay Game. Using a mixed methods, cross-case analysis, this exploratory study examined how undergraduate participants in three separate courses experienced changes in complex systems understanding with the use of the UVA Bay Game through the development of concept maps and written reflections on their learning. While one of the cases yielded evidence of nonsignificant quantitative change between pre and post-simulation concept maps, this study supported an overall positive increase of complex systems understanding through both concept map analysis and narrative reflections on learning. Understanding how participants experience an increase in complex systems understanding with the use of a particular agent-based simulation will help us better understand how learning happens in this context and how we best design simulations to maximize participant learning outcomes.

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