Material cycling is a phenomenon embedded in complex systems and governed by processes and interactions that result in nonlinear outcomes with spatial and temporal dependencies. These features make material cycling a “wicked problem” for ecosystem scientists and for learners. We know that learners struggle to trace causal pathways when outcomes are removed in time and space from their cause, or when understanding requires interpretation of abstract representations of unseen factors. Learning about material cycling invokes these challenges for conceptual understanding. Our work in teaching about material cycling has additional complexity in that we see a need and opportunity to help learners develop not only conceptual understanding, but to also offer deeper understanding of and involvement in the practices, tools, and collaborative culture that are required by modern researchers. These practices have evolved in recent decades to include the use of embedded sensor networks, big data, global perspectives, and cross-system and interdisciplinary collaboration, and this evolution requires new technical and social skills to tackle the problem spaces emerging in macrosystems ecology and social-ecological systems. We will present case studies demonstrating promising approaches for helping learners (from middle school to graduate school) gain conceptual understanding and experience with contemporary science practices.
The EcoMUVE and EcoMOBILE projects embed an “Atom Tracker” in immersive virtual worlds, and molecular views of processes in real environments using augmented reality applications. Pre-post assessments of content knowledge demonstrate that EcoMUVE has a positive impact on middle school student understanding of interactions between biotic and abiotic factors, and on the processes of photosynthesis and respiration (significant gains on 16 of 22 multiple-choice items with effect sizes ranging from 0.14 - 1.34), while EcoMOBILE resulted in gains in understanding of variability and ability to support claims with evidence, but no change in describing data. The EcoXPT curriculum, currently in development, engages students in authentic ecosystem science practices - work that is being supported by qualitative interviews with practicing ecologists. Measuring practice-based outcomes is a “wicked problem” in education generally, and the EcoXPT team is developing ways to measure practice-based outcomes combining pre-post measures, software logfiles and student artifacts. The Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network’s (GLEON) Fellowship Program trains graduate students in synthesis of heterogeneous, high frequency data to reveal novel nonlinearities and feedbacks in material cycling within and among lake ecosystems, and also to understand complex human systems interactions toward the goal of leading interdiscplinary, collaborative scientific teams.