A Low-Cost Integrated Agent-based Modeling and Physical Computing Platform

Project: Research project

Project Details


Purpose. The driving goal of this project is to increase the access by young learners' to powerful expressive tools for computational thinking. We propose to do so by combining NetLogo's agent-based modeling (ABM) environment with the capacity for integrated data collection and physical computing offered by low-cost single-board computers. We will create a set of materials employing this new platform that can serve as the basis for a course providing an introduction to computational thinking that integrates agent-based modeling and physical computing and that is suitable for independent study or for use in informal “club” settings. Opportunity and Need. Most young girls and boys rarely have the opportunity to engage in creative computationally-mediated activity or to produce tangible objects animated by electronics of their own design. We propose to offer a learning environment (including a hardware platform, software, and modular activities) that offers an introduction to expressive computing which bridges competencies traditionally thought of as belonging to computer science, engineering, and computational STEM disciplines. In particular, we build upon pedagogical and technological advances of the past ten years to provide an introduction to computational thinking for young people that balances physical (hardware) with virtual (software) construction. Urgency and Value. A striking number of Single-Board Computers (SBCs) have been introduced in the last 18 months. These devices are generally focused on serving a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture of electronics tinkering with an open-source ethos toward software and hardware. The marketing of SBC devices also suggests that they aim to support the education of young learners, based on the general idea that learning-by-making has significant potential. However, there are not yet clear models for productive engagement by learners in sustained inquiry with these devices. The lack of such models is an urgent need, along two dimensions. First, for the learners themselves, the potential for SBCs to act as convivial tools depends on an introduction to their unique configuration of capabilities that engages learners’ creativity. Without this, even the most open platform can present itself to a learner as an artifact of an alien and elite culture. Second, for the designers, producers, and distributors of SBCs themselves, there is a threat that without a clear model for educational application the development and refinement of these devices may be driven by technology-centered considerations, rather than being optimized for learning. Another time-sensitive need concerns the development of the NetLogo ABM software. The CCL is presently engaged in the development of a web-based NetLogo that will run on many different devices. This project presents an opportunity for synergy between the projects and making sure that the new design fits well with SBC technologies. Intellectual Merit. Agent-based modeling has transformative potential for the entire enterprise of STEM education, restructuring not only how certain concepts are learned, but also when and by whom. Combining this power with physical computing is exciting for design, as indicated by our prior work with NetLogoLabs. Combining the accessibility of ABM approaches with the expressivity of physical computing in the unified context of a single-board computer, has the potential to transform children’s early experiences of computing. Broader Impact. The introduction to computing developed in the project will give concrete evide
Effective start/end date6/1/1412/31/18


  • National Science Foundation (IIS-1438813)


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