Integrated Study of Natural Resources, Human Impact, and Environmental Policy: Making Complex Systems Accessible for Secondary Learners

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This project explores the potential of low-cost paper-based input strategy for "Agent-Based Model" simulations to assist learners in acquiring environmental science concepts. The project will develop an assessment tool to obtain a picture of prior understandings and attitudes held by learners in different populations (high school, undergraduate, and graduate students and experts); it will conduct an exploratory trial of the Agent-Based learning intervention to investigate the impacts on cognition and attitudes of undergraduate students; and will investigate how selected user interface features facilitate specific spatial and scalar understandings.


The experimental work will primarily take place within the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, within a laboratory. Assessments will be administered both there and in Chicago high school settings with varying demographics.

Research Design: 

The project uses a cross-sectional and comparative research design and will generate evidence that is descriptive [cross-sectional comparative assessment] and causal [experimental]. Original data are being collected on high school students and undergraduates using school records, assessments of learning [achievement tests], observation [personal observation and videography], and survey research [self-completion questionnaires and semi-structured, face-to-face interviews]. An educational simulation with a paper-based, computer-vision assisted, method for configuring spatial arrangements is being compared to a simulation with standard input methods (programming, mouse-based inputs).

Instruments or measures being used include existing environmental science assessments (the AP Environmental Science test), tests of attitudes towards science and the use of models in science (e.g., TOSRA, SUMS), and interview-based assessments of complex systems knowledge (e.g., the work performed by Hmelo-Silver and by Jacobson); written surveys; structured coding of video and dialogue; logged performance data. Assessment data will be analyzed by comparing the performance across different levels of science education to determine prevalence of targeted conceptual understandings at different stages if education in environmental science issues. The qualitative within-subject experimental data will be converted to quantitative data where possible. A standard statistical package (SPSS) will be used to perform quantitative analyses.


Preliminary findings indicate that the paper-based input strategy is superior from an efficiency standpoint to the standard programming-based approaches for specifying the spatial properties of a complex system simulation. When compared to a multiple-mouse drag-and-drop interface, while the paper-based interface is less efficient, it seems to encourage more deliberate approach to problem-solving and better overall solutions to complex human-environmental tradeoff problems.

Publications & Presentations: 

Shelley, T., Lyons, L., Minor, E., & Zellner, M. “Evaluating the Embodiment Benefits of a Paper-Based TUI for Educational Simulations,” Extended Abstracts of the 2011 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA 2011), Vancouver, CA, 2011, 1375-1380.

Shelley, T., Lyons, L., Shi, J., Minor, E., & Zellner, M. (2010). Paper to parameters: designing tangible simulation input. Proceedings of the 12th ACM International Conference Adjunct Papers on Ubiquitous Computing, Copenhagen, Denmark. Available online at