Research in Science Education

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 921–953 | Cite as

Learning Natural Selection in 4th Grade with Multi-Agent-Based Computational Models

  • Amanda Catherine Dickes
  • Pratim Sengupta


In this paper, we investigate how elementary school students develop multi-level explanations of population dynamics in a simple predator–prey ecosystem, through scaffolded interactions with a multi-agent-based computational model (MABM). The term “agent” in an MABM indicates individual computational objects or actors (e.g., cars), and these agents obey simple rules assigned or manipulated by the user (e.g., speeding up, slowing down, etc.). It is the interactions between these agents, based on the rules assigned by the user, that give rise to emergent, aggregate-level behavior (e.g., formation and movement of the traffic jam). Natural selection is such an emergent phenomenon, which has been shown to be challenging for novices (K16 students) to understand. Whereas prior research on learning evolutionary phenomena with MABMs has typically focused on high school students and beyond, we investigate how elementary students (4th graders) develop multi-level explanations of some introductory aspects of natural selection—species differentiation and population change—through scaffolded interactions with an MABM that simulates predator–prey dynamics in a simple birds-butterflies ecosystem. We conducted a semi-clinical interview based study with ten participants, in which we focused on the following: a) identifying the nature of learners’ initial interpretations of salient events or elements of the represented phenomena, b) identifying the roles these interpretations play in the development of their multi-level explanations, and c) how attending to different levels of the relevant phenomena can make explicit different mechanisms to the learners. In addition, our analysis also shows that although there were differences between high- and low-performing students (in terms of being able to explain population-level behaviors) in the pre-test, these differences disappeared in the post-test.


Agent-based models Multi-agent-based models Science education Misconceptions Natural selection Evolution NetLogo MABMs Modeling Computational models Conceptual change 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mind, Matter & Media Lab, Department of Teaching & LearningVanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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