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Balancing the Environment: Computational Models as Interactive Participants in a STEM Classroom

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This paper describes the work done by sixth grade students to achieve and sustain productive and personally meaningful lines of inquiry with computational models. The capacity to frame interactions with tools as dialogic exchanges with co-participants is a productive practice for disciplinary engagement in science and for computational thinking (Chandrasekharan and Nersessian 2015; Dennet 1989; Latour 1993; Pickering 1995). We propose that computational models have unique affordances for dialogic interaction because they are probabilistic and iteratively executable, features that provide an entry point for students to adopt stances that treat computational models as participants. Our analysis reveals that existing patterns in students’ social interactions are resources for interacting flexibly with computational tools as participants. In particular, we found that students treated computational models as participants in three ways: (1) as conversational peers, (2) as co-constructors of lines of inquiry, and (3) as projections of students’ agency and identity. Our data also demonstrate that students take on flexible, rather than fixed, stances toward computational participants. These stances parallel scientists’ interactions with non-human entities, which often involve treating tools as agentive participants in inquiry (Latour 1999; Pickering 1995), affording students a pathway to practices at the intersection of disciplinary engagement and computational thinking.

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  • 21 December 2019

    The original version of this article unfortunately contained a mistake. The citation and bibliographic information of this reference is missing in the original article.


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This study was supported by the National Science Foundation through grant 1742138 to Vanderbilt University.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional review board VU FWA#00024139 and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

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The original version of this article was revised: The original version of this article unfortunately contained a mistake. The citation and bibliographic information of this reference is missing in the original article. “Sengupta, P., Dickes, A., & Farris, A.V. (2020). Voicing code in STEM: A dialogical imagination. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA (forthcoming)” and should be cited in p. 3, fourth paragraph of the section heading “Computational Models as Participants”. In this paper, we describe the work done by sixth grade students to adopt productive stances toward computational models, including stances that treat computational tools as participants in interaction and in inquiry. As described above, flexibly partnering with computational participants is becoming an essential skill within emerging STEM fields. Our data suggest that students leverage existing patterns in social interaction as resources for interacting with computational models as participants in this classroom. From a practical perspective, our data demonstrate that our students interact with their models as conversational peers. The utterances that students produce reflect the intentions and ideas of the students but are also shaped in part by the computational models (Sengupta et al, forthcoming). In combination with the probabilistic nature of the models and the students’ inexperience with the environment, these participation structures position the models as co-constructors of new lines of inquiry.

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Pierson, A.E., Brady, C.E. & Clark, D.B. Balancing the Environment: Computational Models as Interactive Participants in a STEM Classroom. J Sci Educ Technol 29, 101–119 (2020).

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