CHARACTERIZING COMPUTATIONAL THINKING THROUGH THE USE OF MODELING AND SIMULATION ACTIVITIES WITHIN THE ENGINEERING CLASSROOM
The concept of computational thinking (CT) has become more prevalent across the engineering education research and teaching landscape. Yet much of the research to date has been more definitional and has not offered many ways to convert CT theory to practice. One prominent set of tools used across engineering disciplines is modeling and simulation, which allows students to create a representation of the outside world as they understand it.
This three-paper dissertation connects modeling and simulation skills with eliciting CT by leveraging model-based reasoning as a theoretical framework. A learning design was created and delivered here via design-based research that includes educational frameworks such as productive failure and model-eliciting activities (MEAs) to structure the modeling activity within a classroom setting. The designed learning intervention used a four-part sequence to scaffold the modeling activity in the classroom: (1) planning the model, (2) building the model, (3) evaluating the model, and (4) reflecting on the model. A case study of a final-year capstone course in biological engineering implemented the four-week designed learning intervention as part of the course.
The guiding research question for the study was how do modeling and simulation activities elicit computational thinking practices in the context of undergraduate engineering education? To approach this question, data were collected in audio transcripts and student-generated artifacts to identify areas where the modeling activity elicited different forms of CT in the student work. The first study examined how CT was elicited within the model-building phase and developed an initial codebook for CT practices and outcomes using thematic analysis. The second and third studies built upon that codebook and further the outcomes by analyzing the modeling activity's planning and evaluating/reflecting phases. The results indicate that CT is used throughout the entire modeling and simulation process as students engage in model-based reasoning. The identified CT practices of abstraction, algorithmic thinking, evaluation, generalization, and decomposition emerged from a thematic analysis, and each practice was further characterized and refined into a set of outcomes. Furthermore, each phase of the modeling activity emphasized unique CT outcomes suggesting that students would benefit from enacting the entire modeling and simulation process to acquire and practice a diverse range of CT outcomes.