The first module represents a pond ecosystem (Figure 3). Students explore the pond and the surrounding area, even under the water, see realistic organisms in their natural habitats, and collect water, weather, and population data. Students visit the pond over a number of virtual "days," and eventually make the surprising discovery that, on a day in late summer, many fish in the pond have died. Students are challenged to figure out what happened – they work in teams to collect and analyze data, and gather information to solve the mystery and understand the complex causality of the pond ecosystem.
Specific affordances of MUVEs that help students learn aspects of causality include the abilities to change time, scale, and space. Design elements in the MUVE link with our ecosystem content and causal understanding goals as follows:
|Ecosystem Concepts||Causality Concepts||EcoMUVE Design|
|Conservation of matter
|Inquiry and measurement||Inquiry over time
Balance and Flux
|Water measurement tools
Data table and graphs
|Ecosystem boundaries, watershed||Effects over distance
|Spatial layout of virtual world – pond, housing development, golf course|
|Photosynthesis and respiration||Effects over distance
|Water measurement tools
Students can visit 8 virtual days during one summer. On each date students may talk to residents or collect data and clues. Data they've collected is stored in a data table and students analyze temporal trends using a built in graphing function.
Students also observe visual changes over time, like the color of the pond – clues about the complex chain of events unfolding before their eyes.
Important tacit clues were built into the spatial layout of the virtual world. Students find the pond is situated near a housing development and golf course. The students explore the area surrounding the pond to learn about fertilizer that has been applied by residents who live near the pond. They also observe tacit clues, like water running through a storm water drainage pipe on its way to the pond.
A submarine tool lets students examine microscopic pond life, helping students understand that ecosystems involve non-obvious causes hard to detect with the naked eye.
Non-obvious causes can be further explored by students using the atom tracker tool. Students hunt around the virtual world to find atoms that are in the middle of an elemental cycle. The atom reports to the student what they are doing and the student can witness ecological processes happening at the molecular level.
Students demonstrated significant increases in understanding the importance of changes over time in analyzing ecosystem data (McNemar test, χ2(1,63) = 6.72, p = 0.01). Scores on questions related to effects over distance also increased, though these results were not significant (McNemar test, χ2(1,63) = 2.77, p = 0.096). Students had an appreciation for non-obvious causes before working with EcoMUVE (McNemar test, χ2(1,63) = 0.17, p = 0.68).
Students demonstrated significant gains in understanding on a number of key ecosystem concepts. Responses were scored on a scale from 0-3 points. (Results below are based on paired t-tests, N=21)
|CONCEPT||PRE M||PRE SD||POST M||POST SD||t(20)||p|
|Environmental factors that affect populations||1.48||1.33||2.33||0.66||-3.87||0.001|
|Mechanism behind photosynthesis||1.67||1.23||2.57||0.81||-2.94||0.008|
|Food web relationships||0.9||1.38||1.67||1.32||-2.21||0.039|
|Processes of gas exchange between air and water||0.43||0.93||1.5||1.08||-3.98||0.001|