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Designing web-based learning environments to support middle school students' reflective inquiry of complex scientific problems

Final Activity Report Summary - REFLECTIVE INQUIRY (Designing web-based learning environments to support middle school students' reflective inquiry of complex scientific problems)

The primary goal of this project was to investigate a software-based mechanism for supporting the development of middle school students' scientific reasoning. The project included the development and empirical investigation of a web-based learning environment, and the development of a web-based authoring system to support the development and management of inquiry-based learning environments.

STOCHASMOS was comprised of a learning environment for students and an authoring and student management tool for the teachers. The students' learning environment is comprised of two sections: in the Inquiry Environment, students have access to inquiry content and are given the tools to document evidence to support their developing explanations of a scientific problem. Students can organise data in pages they create using existing templates in the Work Space; each of the created pages contains areas in which students can organize their data and areas for the articulation of students' interpretations of the data. Prompts and annotation tools embedded in each of the pages can support students' reflection, with the ultimate goal of supporting students' self-regulated learning and the creation of evidence-based explanations. STOCHASMOS also includes an authoring and project management tool for the designers of inquiry-based learning environments. Through this tool, the designers can create new projects in which they can embed existing, or create, new inquiry-based environments. Furthermore, they can add reflective support by creating template pages for the students' WorkSpace area, to provide subtle guidance to their students. The project management tool offers teachers the capability to group individual students in different projects, track their students' work over the course of several investigations throughout the school year, and provide asynchronous feedback to each group of students.

At the end of the two-year research project, the web-based learning platform as well as the authoring and project management tool have been realized and are fully functional. The platform has been used by learners of varied ages (6th and 11th grade students, graduate university students, as well as by in-service elementary and high-school teachers). These implementations provided useful feedback for revising the STOCHASMOS platform. A first inquiry investigation 'The Larnaca Salt Lake Flamingos' was used in the research examination of the reflective support provided by the platform. Following the principles of design-based research, the investigation was first enacted in three sixth grade classes; the results of this enactment guided the revision of the learning unit and of the platform, and led to an enactment in two other sixth grade classes in an elementary school in Nicosia.

A total of 128 students participated in these two enactments. A variety of research data were collected during each enactment. The analyses of the students' discourse and their videotaped interactions indicated that the platform was easy to use and that the students were able to engage in inquiry. Furthermore, in one of the analyses conducted, in which we compared 6th graders' explanations with and without the use of web-based reflective scaffolding, we found that this type of scaffolding was more beneficial to lower achievement students. The results showed no statistically significant differences in different-achievement pairs' explanations of the Flamingo problem in the class using the reflective supports of the WorkSpace environment. In contrast, there were statistically significant differences between the explanations of different achievement pairs who were not using the WorkSpace but were, instead, using PowerPoint to support their inquiry. These results support and refine findings presented in the literature. The work conducted during this project has led to new, related proposals, with funding from local funds and the European Commission supporting the continuation of both the research and the development efforts.