Model students: Sixth-graders take part in university research project

For a few days in spring, observers became the observed in Santa Catalina Lower and Middle School's sixth-grade science lab. While students dropped blue food coloring into beakers of hot and cold water and made models of what they saw, two university researchers collected data for a project they hope will enhance middle school science curriculum nationwide.

Tamar Fuhrmann of Columbia University and Brendan Henrique of UC Berkeley are part of a team of researchers who have been working with Santa Catalina's Kelly Miller and a handful of other California science teachers to design lessons for building students’ skills in computational modeling. Ultimately, the goal is to make computational modeling a sustained and long-term practice in middle school classrooms.

Mrs. Miller has been involved with the effort for the past two years, helping to design curriculum for sixth- and seventh-graders. “The project allowed me to push myself to try something totally out of my comfort zone, and it was a great opportunity for my students,” she says.

A computer screen shows a model titled "How does ink spread in water?" There are scattered dots in the middle of the screen.

Computational models use computer programs to simulate real-world phenomena; think of the daily weather report or predictions for the spread of disease. Modeling helps reinforce students’ understanding of science concepts while building their problem-solving skills. According to the researchers, science educators view computational modeling as a valuable tool, but many factors stand in the way of its widespread use in classrooms. The team developed a modeling program called MoDa to break down some of those barriers, including time and ease of use. This is the program that Catalina students tested out during their spring lesson on diffusion.

The lesson progressed in three stages. First, students completed a lab in which they observed the behavior of the food coloring as it moved through different temperatures of water, taking video recordings of the process for reference. Second, they drew a model on paper to recreate what they observed, using arrows to show how the food coloring and water interacted. Finally, the students used the test program, MoDa, to model the movement of particles.

MoDa (, derived from the words modeling and data, is a drag-and-drop system that easily allowed students to create water and ink particles, set their speed, and direct the particles to interact with each other. After students input the instructions, a panel in the middle of the screen populated with red and blue dots that started to move. An automatically generated graph at the bottom of the screen charted the spread of food coloring over time. Students could upload their videos to play alongside the model in real time.

A Santa Catalina Lower and Middle School student gestures as he talks to a man in a science classroom.

Dr. Fuhrmann and Mr. Henrique—who also work alongside researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—watched the students go through each task and talked with them about their thought processes. Dr. Fuhrmann says, “Students understand the micro level by looking at molecules of ink and water, but at the same time they see the macro level of the scientific experiment. I love to see their excitement from science after participating in the program.”

Mrs. Miller notes that the whole experience helped students learn the lesson at a deeper level. “Instead of just knowing what diffusion is, they had to understand what happens with the water and dye molecules and how they interact,” she says. “The struggle to understand a concept at a deeper level and to be able to discuss their ideas and ask questions openly was such a great learning opportunity for all of us.”

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