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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Developing an Understanding of Systems in the Context of Ecohydrological Citizen Science Research

  • Author(s): Long, Jennifer Joan
  • Advisor(s): Santagata, Rossella
  • et al.

Systems thinking can serve as an important tool for making informed decisions about our world, but the complex nature of systems makes systems thinking challenging to teach and particularly challenging for young children to learn. This dissertation tells the story of the Citizen Scientists’ After-school Club, a citizen science based approach to learning about complex systems, detailing the learning outcomes associated with participation, the theoretical contributions of the design, the challenges that arose from implementation, and the resulting lessons learned. Through design-based methodology, I examined the both the learning outcomes and the programmatic components necessary to cultivate systems thinking in nine youth ages 9-11 as they participated in ecohydrological citizen science research. Qualitative methods were used to study the learners’ changes in systems thinking as well as the extent to which the design of the after-school club may have influenced these changes. The conceptual model that served as the foundation of the design predicted that learners would engage in increasingly complex systems thinking as they participated in the steps of science research. Overall, the results revealed that learners did engage in a pattern of systems thinking predicted by the model. Despite the learners’ initially fragmented view of the ecohydrological system, most of them made progress in their ability to understand and explain the core features of a complex interacting system. The design of the learning environment supported their learning by affording access to tasks, tools, and participation structures associated with authentic research, thus engaging the learners in the doing of science. This research showed that in spite of their minimal initial systems thinking abilities, most of the learners made meaningful progress in their systems thinking skills. Prior work with learners of this age suggested that there may be limits to the complexity of systems thinking reasoning of youth ages 9 – 11; however, the results of the study suggest that although systems thinking is regarded as a high order thinking skill, with designed supports in an authentic context, learners as young as nine years old can develop systems thinking skills.

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