Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Environments for Coherent, Inquiry-based Learning

The arrival of COVID-19 has changed lives around the globe on an unprecedented scale. In the process, it has begun to transform learning for millions of students, introducing many to distance learning for the first time and placing virtual learning resources center stage worldwide. While the migration of classroom teaching to online settings is temporary, the understanding we gain about technology’s potential for STEM learning will endure far beyond the current crisis. One of the most important ways technology can foster STEM learning is through robust, open-ended simulations. As we consider the role of virtual learning in a new light, it pays to reflect on key principles that make simulations most powerful for learning.

Robust simulation environments can foster coherent, inquiry-based learning. Indeed, many topics and phenomena are simply not accessible for inquiry in the science classroom—they may be too large or too small, demand timescales that are too long or too short, or require conditions that are too dangerous to create in a school laboratory setting. In such cases, technology is essential. However, while individual simulations can illustrate a phenomenon, far too often they do little more than that—provide an illustrative animation. There is another way.

Instead of creating isolated experiences, the Concord Consortium develops technology-based environments for inquiry. The differences are important, and the implications for flexibility and learning are significant. In our Connected Biology project, for example, one of the learning goals requires that students understand ecosystems. Rather than develop a single simulation showing hawks eating mice and mice eating grass, we designed and developed an explorable, multi-level environment. (Get a sneak peek in “Monday’s Lesson” on page 7.)

In this environment, the innate scientific rules of nature govern all interactions from the population level down to the genetic level. As in life itself, organisms and molecules alike follow these central rules—from the random assortment of genes during meiosis to the intricate interplay among organisms and their characteristics that power the process of evolution. With this full environment in place, students can do much more than passively observe an example. Instead they can experiment with it across scientific levels. They can directly engage in coherent, inquiry-based thinking and evolve their thinking over time.

This approach works because we have the ability to leverage our experience and prior work. Twenty-five years of National Science Foundation-supported projects have allowed us to create repurposeable simulation engines for whole classes of phenomena. These engines—computer codebases that allow us to generate authentic, open-ended science learning scenarios—are the “secret sauce” of our simulation environments. Building these into extended curricula transforms students from passive observers into active scientists as they become able, often for the first time, to explore the world’s complex phenomena.

Over the past quarter century of designing and developing technology for K-12 science education, we have honed an approach to creating consistent, high-quality inquiry learning. Eight design principles guide our work.

Design Principle 1: Environments should allow students the agency to choose multiple, open-ended paths to investigate phenomena.

Our goal is to design environments that are inherently inquiry based. These environments should allow students to explore phenomena guided by their ideas and intuition, with the ability to discover central scientific concepts. The environments must provide students with the ability to uncover the natural world’s mysteries for themselves while also giving them the freedom to make mistakes and sort through extraneous choices on the way.

Design Principle 2: Simulation environments should enable students to navigate freely among multiple interconnected levels of a system.

In order to evoke the important patterns and relationships needed for learning fundamental science concepts, simulation environments should help students connect multiple levels of a system and identify the key mechanisms that underly the phenomena they encounter.

Design Principle 3: Simulation environments should reflect the natural world as authentically as possible, while supporting high-quality pedagogy and balancing grade-level needs.

Support for learning and pedagogy of the highest quality is the uncompromising goal. Technology for inquiry should demonstrate the greatest accuracy feasible. Rich, accurate simulations should be powered by algorithms and computational models that reflect an authentic world.

Design Principle 4: Students should be able to analyze and compare multiple, dynamic, linked representations of datasets they produce via the environment.

Data represent a special, and essential, form of evidence. Simulation environments should support students in exploring and analyzing complex, multivariable data in an open-ended fashion, using dynamic representations that make clear the structure of the data and allow students to develop and support individual views and investigations.

Design Principle 5: Students should be able to collect artifacts—including meaningful, multivariable data—from the simulation environment for use as evidence to support scientific argumentation.

As part of investigating the natural world through simulation environments, students should have the ability to identify, highlight, and make use of aspects of any environment in ways that represent their thinking and act as supports for dialogue and scientific argumentation.

Design Principle 6: Students should be able to return to simulation environments repeatedly within a unit, and multiple times across units, each time deriving new insights and deepening understanding.

Simulation environments should support students in rich investigation that unfolds over time through multiple, recurring sessions as their knowledge deepens and their ideas grow more sophisticated. Students may return months later to explore an aspect of the natural world they had not examined in their first encounter.

Design Principle 7: The central structure of simulation environments should reflect the structure and hierarchies of the natural world in ways that support reuse.

Simulation environments aim to support investigation of the natural world and thus should reflect the hierarchies and organization of the world itself. For example, our environments support four interlinked levels of structure from the “big picture” system level to intermediate levels that include the entities involved within the system and provide access to their interactions and relationships, all the way down to a look “under the hood,” often revealing the dynamics or interactions from which the system’s salient phenomena truly emerge.

Design Principle 8: Simulation environments should present “low thresholds” and “high ceilings” to encourage reuse and increasing sophistication.

Rich representations of phenomena can be deployed in multiple areas, each viewed through a different lens. A simulation supporting upper elementary students in one unit may also be used to support high school students in a different unit. A low threshold allows students to begin immediately investigating phenomena with little or no startup explanation or prior understanding while a high ceiling offers expanded abilities to explore the rich, authentic phenomena at a deep level of sophistication.

These principles begin to define the essential elements of simulation environments that take advantage of the true potential of technology for three-dimensional learning. Through our ongoing work, our abiding goal is to make the wonder of science, math, and engineering accessible in ways that bring out the inner scientist in everyone.

Chad Dorsey ( is President of the Concord Consortium.