Collaborations for Learning: The Experience of NASA's Classroom of the Future


Rose-Hulman Institute
Terre Haute, Indiana

LAURIERUBERG, Senior Instructional Designer
Wheeling Jesuit University
Wheeling, West Virginia

TINA JOHNSON,Biology Teacher
Hoover High School
North Canton, Ohio

JANET KRAUS,Biology Teacher
Horace Mann High School
Riverdale, New York

ANN SOWD,Biology Teacher
Jackson High School
Massillon, Ohio

The convergence of severalfactors make it a good time to be teaching science at the high schoollevel. The new National Science Standards and emerging educationaltechnologies promise significant changes in science education.Certainly, in an age of change, knowledge transfer becomes animportant issue. Many government agencies are committed to helpingeducators with the extension of theory and expertise into modern,dynamic classroom applications. This article reports on aNASA-sponsored project at the Classroom of the Future (COTF) thattransfers research on human exploration of space to the high schoolbiology classroom.

The work we report on cameabout through NASA's support of an educational outreach project forAdvanced Life Support (ALS) scientific research being carried out atseveral NASA Centers. Sustaining humans in colonies beyond earth'senvironment requires a balance among components, resources, andsystems. Since this project targets the high school biologycurriculum, NASA research into plant-based regenerative systemsprovides the core content for this COTF multimediaproduct.

Critical issues in abio-regenerative system include: (1) plant production, (2) humanrequirements, and (3) resource recovery. The original proposal toNASA was to create a unified scenario in which high school studentsare provided with a context and the means to actively participate inthe intellectual inquiry and the creative excitement associated withleading-edge science.

BioBLAST (Better Learningthrough Adventure, Simulations and Telecommunication) is an"educational environment" -- built on a framework of scientificinquiry and rich content representation -- delivered on a CD-ROM. Thefocus of the activities is to design and balance a classed biosphereto support a crew of six living on the lunar surface. Virtual Reality(VR) multimedia increases motivation by presenting a high-fidelitywalk-through of the lunar base in which the students are "virtually"living and working. Additionally, a variety of simulation-drivenworkspaces provide opportunities for students to extend the empiricalactivities of the lab and background knowledge to the challengingfinal exercise of creating and managing complex biosphere for a lunarbase.

AnInterdisciplinary Team of Experts

Now in its third year ofdevelopment, the BioBlast project represents the collaboration of aninterdisciplinary team of experts:

  • NASA Personnel: Scientists and engineers who make the domain of ALS research accessible by providing concept papers, data from ongoing experimentation, video footage of space habitat mockups, taped interviews, lab tours, and a human context; and by providing their genuine commitment to promoting student interest in science and engineering careers.
  • Instructional Designers, Curriculum Writers and Software Engineers: Practitioners who take the wealth of materials contributed by the experts, with an emphasis on active learning through exploration and collaboration.
  • A Cadre of Teacher-Leaders: Educators who serve as an advisory group during the development phase, and who field-tested the first version of the materials. (Organized near the end of 1995, the group currently includes 24 teachers from 15 states.)

We focus here on theinnovative qualities of BioBLAST as a learning environment and theindispensable role the teacher-leader group has had in the project.Many multimedia educational products available today are conceived ofas "super-books." They present students with multi-modelrepresentation of materials and explanations, but their "pedagogy" isprimarily didactic and their assumptions about learning are fairlystatic.

The National ScienceEducation Standards call for a different pedagogy and a moreeffective use of instructional technology.[1] In essence,these reform guidelines suggest project-based and inquiry-drivenlearning systems that feature an engaging context from which learnerscan generate authentic questions for in-depth inquiry. Thesestudent-defined investigations should be carried out in a communityof inquiry where classmates and teachers collaborate to completecomplex activities and to produce artifacts for meaningfulassessment. Therefore, educational technologies (especially advancedmedia) should be "situated" and should foster collaboration andactive learning.[2]

TheBioBlast Environment

Supporting aconstructivist approach to learning, BioBLAST consists of a suite of"authentic" tasks. Though varied, these items fall into three maincategories:

  • Hands-on Activities: Collaborative, directly-related laboratories; jigsaw activities for establishing roles and sharing content; and "thought problems" for capturing foundational concepts.
  • Contextual and Communication Resources: An "explorable" 3-D lunar base -- crew quarters, plan growth chambers, resource recycling facilities, and research laboratory -- that serves as an interface to access a 200 item library; telecommunications support for querying NASA experts, for sharing insights and data with other schools, and for exploiting additional resources on the Internet; and an electronic journal that invites learners to explore, record, reflect, and construct meaning.
  • Software Tools: A variety of electronic numerical manipulators, embedded within the intellectual activities, that range from traditional calculators and spreadsheets to more domain-specific representations. The latter include simulators for subsets of the controlled life-support system -- plant production, resource recycling, and human requirements -- as well as a final simulator where students work with the requirements of the entire ecosystem.

From the beginning,students are immersed in a project-based scenario. They must find outwhat they need to know about human and plant interdependencies aswell as the processes of bio-regeneration in order to set up a lunarecology what will stay balanced for three years. Some of thisinvestigation takes the form of structured lab experiments providedby the program; other activities require students to devise their owninvestigative agenda.

In working with the totalproject, students are asked to become "researchers." Rather thanlearning entirely through cook-book formats, students must identifythe central questions, determine what they already know and wherethey need to augment prior knowledge, construct a plan and partitiontasks, share expertise with team members, and in general, reachclosure through their own persistent exploration of ideas.

The radical shift awayfrom lectures, decontextualized experimentation, and textbooksdemands a great deal from the teacher. The move to authentic,situated, and project-based learning mandates that teachers droptheir authoritarian mantel and assume a master-apprenticerelationship with the learners. All of the BioBLAST teacher-leadersare accomplished educators who have enthusiastically adopted the newrole for teachers of science. They were selected to work with theproject through a nationwide competitive applicationprocess.

The teachers' specificcharge in the first fielding (1996-1997) of the BioBLAST CD-ROM wastwo-fold. First, as classroom experts, they were asked to comment onthe appropriateness of the materials for their situation. Second, asskilled practitioners of the new pedagogy, they were asked tofacilitate the "weaving" of patterns of effective usage from the manyavailable activities. In essence, teachers were asked to serve as"sherpas" in finding paths of learning through the rich and intensiveenvironment.

Summaryof Teachers' Feedback

During the academic yearof 1996-97, teacher-leaders adapted the components of the program totheir individual classrooms, providing feedback on their experiencesand adaptations. We summarize here a representative sample of ourteachers' commentary, and categorize them into threeareas.

1) Developing BridgingActivities for Clarifying and Reinforcing Concepts: Students --even the most enthusiastic of them -- have few mature strategies forconstructing meaning from even the most well-planned of classroomactivities. Thus, the BioBLAST teachers focused on devisingactivities that model complex concepts or behaviors in small or morefamiliar domains of experience.

For example, Ann Sowd(teaching at Jackson High, near Canton, Ohio) reported studentsapproached BioBlast as a long-term, project-based activity withinwhich to examine important biological concepts. The overall theme ofthe photosynthesis/ respiration cycle between humans, plants, and theenvironment lent itself to "energy usage" as a starting point, withprogressively more complex examinations of basic processes occurringas additional cycles (carbon, nitrogen, water, decomposition,respiration, and combustion).

2) Using "Artifacts" toFoster Learning: Active learning is both product- andprocess-based. Ideally constructing one level of "knowledge product"(or artifact) feeds into the process of attaining a higher level ofunderstanding. For example, collected data can be analyzed forpatterns and trends, from which the student may be asked to drawcause-and-effect inferences or to formulate predictions orgeneralizations about future behaviors of the elements under study.The very richness of the BioBLAST domain challenged teachers to workthrough interactive cycles of process, fostering a product which theninitiated yet another process.

Tina Johnson (teaching atHoover High, in north central Ohio) started her classes' BioBLASTexperience by having each team construct a "quart-jar ecology"(snails, plants, bacteria, and the like). The classes alsoconstructed a 5-by-9-foot human cell and investigated components andrelationships. As the course progressed, these "microcosms" becameanalogs for the more complex and sophisticated macrocosms of AdvancedLife Support (ALS) and other controlled ecologies. Additionally,Johnson's classes found the hands-on experiments (mirroring actualNASA research interests) to be particularly engaging. The studentsposed questions to NASA scientists, with whom they formedpartnerships and agreed to extend their investigations. For example,students will grow control plantings for an experiment in plantreproduction to be conducted on the Space Shuttle.

3) Sustaining the Senseof a "Community" for Scientific Inquiry: Meaningfulimplementations of collaborative learning require sustaining theintellectual rigor of scientific inquiry while nurturing thesocio-cultural dimensions of group activities that foster respect forindividuals and student-teacher interdependencies that promotelearning. Janet Kraus (teaching at

Horace Mann School in NewYork) reported that the open-ended quality of BioBLAST fosteredcollaboration between students and teacher in deciding uponevaluation standards. Discussing possible outcomes and constructingrubrics as a class activity lowered student anxieties and increasedmotivation. Promoting a constructivist approach to learning, Krausused guided-inductive techniques to help students define issues,determine problems to be solved, and exchange ideas in a series ofpositive interactions.

BioBLAST also helpedstudents establish communities beyond their local situation.Intra-school sharing of data on common experiments marked the "pilot"year. The current implementation (1997-1998) has a "newsgroup"feature for students to share both data and reflections. Also, thenew program contains expanded opportunities for students tocontribute to distributed research and to participate inNASA-sponsored student projects.

StudentsAre Active Participants

While flexibility is thehallmark of BioBLAST, each student works through a baselineconfiguration of tasks. This paradigm accommodates both breadth anddepth in the integrated study of science, math, and technology. Eachstudent performs a set of hands-on experiments, examining aspects ofthe three primary concerns in ALS: plant life-cycle; humanphysiology; and resource recovery from liquid, gaseous, and solid"wastes."

Teachers foreground"content" and "concepts" as appropriate to their curriculumrequirements and expected outcomes. For example, in the area of plantlife-cycle, students might examine the more fine-grained aspects ofthe chemistry of photosynthesis, even to the point of dealing withmolecular structures and balancing equations. As another example,resource recycling might include quantitative examination of thedecomposition process or mathematical analysis and modeling of wastewater recycling in a hydroponics plant-growth chamber.

Two important milestones-- no matter what the path or the depth of study selected by theteacher -- include team research proposals and a capstone activityconsisting of running software simulations of the ecosystems studentteams have designed for their lunar bases.

For the research proposal,each student team identifies an important, but unanswered, facet ofALS research, and develops a plan for investigating the issue. Thisactivity increases students' understanding of the components of awell-formulated inquiry -- including a hypothesis, independent anddependent variables, method of investigation, data collection andanalysis, and significance of results in the simulation runs.Therefore, students can monitor such things as 0<->2<->and C0<->2<-> production and depletion, available potablewater, food reserves, build-up of waste products, and status of therecycling mechanisms. Students take the data from unsuccessful runs,assess their errors and misconceptions, then make adjustments totheir settings in preparation for the next run.

The new nationalguidelines envision dramatic changes for the role of the student inscience education. However, learners who have grown accustomed to the"traditional" pedagogy which places heavy emphasis on lecture,textbook, lab, and demo may initially flounder when these structuresare removed. Certainly, it is unrealistic to think that "littlescientists" will spontaneously emerge when confronted with anopen-ended problem -- no matter how intriguing the presentation.Nevertheless, from the reports of our teacher-leaders, we findencouraging advancements in students' participation in the processand their understanding of the content. We summarize these gainsunder three categories.

1) Improved Strategiesfor Inquiry: The new National Standards emphasize inquiry overlecture and demo. Certainly, the ability to "do science" isengendered through intellectual curiosity, coupled with reasoning andpatience. Sowd noted improved problem-solving abilities and enhancedcritical thinking skills (asking "why" rather than "how") among herstudents. Johnson found her classes able to take on larger "chunks"of the process of learning. Each team worked on a problem that wasalso a subset of the larger context for the lunar base simulation.She found that her students were more self-directed and more capableof sustaining a high level of effort with BioBLAST than with atraditional science format. Kraus noted that student teams "sometimesplotted their strategies for hours before starting the final,lunar-base simulation. They saw the importance of thinking throughtheir actions."All three teachers emphasized that students came backto the lab during free time to continue their work.

2) EnhancedCommunication and "Publishing" Competencies: Authentic tasks inscience education take students through a "critical path" of asking aquestion, doing an investigation, answering the question, andcommunicating the result to others.[1] All teachers mentionedthe effectiveness of the lab journal -- both for data collection andfor reflection. Kraus, Sowd, and Johnson found that the openclassroom environment and increased sharing among students alsoenhanced students' abilities to communicate with peers incollaborative work efforts, for example, in providing commentary andaccepting constructive criticism. All three teachers also found thatthe research proposal improved abilities to draw inferences todevelop a synthesis out of multiple sources or perspectives, andincreased tolerance for uncertainty. Students became more adept atpulling things together and "reporting" for a range of audience,purpose, and forms.

3) IncreasedUnderstanding of Relationship between Data Manipulation and ConceptFormation: Understanding the "process" of science means knowinghow to extract higher-order meaning from carefully collected data andobjectively recorded observations. The many quantitative andqualitative activities in BioBLAST encourages students to see themeaningful trends in data and to use this information for suchsophisticated cognition as prediction, explanatory generalization, ordecision-making. Ann Sowd indicated that one of the program's mostpromising traits is the integration of mathematics into the biologycurriculum. Data collection associated with experiments and dataanalysis through spreadsheets provided the students with theunderstanding to set up and to run the final simulation of a viablelunar base. In this way, numbers became the foundations for conceptunderstanding. Additionally, Sowd observed that new computer skills,especially the ability to manipulate graphical representations,enhanced her students' ability to think logically.

Benefitsof Field Testing

The development cycle forBioBLAST emphasizes feedback from both teachers and students. We havereported here on the initial field-testing of a pre-release version.Already the "lessons learned" were incorporated into the version thatis to be used in the fall and spring semesters of academic year1997-1998. This overarching commitment to iterative design anddevelopment has had many benefits, such as:

  • Integrating Advanced Media into the Curriculum: Software supplements for teaching/ learning cannot be treated as "self-driving" or as "stand-alone." Advanced technologies must gracefully partner with the aims of the teacher and abilities of the students in order to enhance education. Each of the teacher-leaders in our group is highly adept at fostering both content and concept learning through skillfully orchestrated classroom practices. The creative ways in which each teacher integrated various components of the CD-ROM into a meaningful "whole" gave the development staff insights in two categories. First, we made valuable observations on the larger pedagogical issues of embedding advanced media in education. Second, we learned much about the more local issues of bundling the tools, activities, and informational support into engaging, day-to-day lessons.
  • Accommodating Self-Directed Learners: As valuable as teacher creativity was in using the software, student usage told us much about mediating learning in a problem-based environment. Of the approximately 200 students participating at Hoover High, Horace Mann, and Jackson High, the majority were intrigued by the subject matter and approach. (Analysis of data including results from a pre- and post-test will be reported at a later date. However, observation by teachers and from site visits by the development staff point toward increased student engagement.) Of the several artifacts produced by the learners, perhaps the most useful indicator of performance is the research proposal. After being immersed in the ALS scenario, most student teams identified an important element for further research, and formulated a mature plan for the investigation.

Developing new approachesto advanced educational applications always involves a risk. BioBLASTwas especially demanding because of the complexity of the domain, therichness of the items included on the CD-ROM, and the freedom ofchoice offered both teacher and student in exploring information andperforming tasks. However, through the efforts of a multi-talentedteam, this first field-testing of BioBLAST demonstrated thefundamental soundness not only of the software but also of thecollaborative approach through which it was built.

Patricia Carlson servedas a NASA Summer Faculty Fellow with the BioBLAST project both in1996 and 1997. Her areas of expertise include cognitive design ofmultimedia and the integration of advanced media into the classroomand curriculum. She has been a National Research Council SeniorAssociate (1989-1990) and has held numerous fellowships from theAmerican Association for Engineering Education. Carlson is aProfessor at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute,Indiana.
E-mail: [email protected]

Laurie Ruberg is SeniorInstructional Designer and BioBLAST Project Manager with the NASAClassroom of the Future (COTF) program at Wheeling Jesuit University.Her work as a curriculum developer in the context of project-basededucation technology began in Louisiana in 1979, and continues inWest Virginia. She completed her doctoral research in Curriculum andInstruction at Virginia Tech in 1994.
Email: [email protected]

Tina Johnson is abiology and anatomy/physiology teacher with 26 years experience.Johnson has served as a BioBLAST teacher-leader for three years. Inaddition, she has won both state and national awards for herinnovative use of technology in the teaching of science. Notably, in1995, Johnson was named by NSTA as one of the top 100 biologyteachers in the country.
Email: [email protected]

Janet Kraus has beenteaching biology at Horace Mann for the past 14 years. Known for herinnovative approach, Kraus initiated and administers the ScienceAssociate Program in which students partner with science teachers towork on projects for community service credit. She is also a pilotteacher in the Synthesis Program, working to integrate advancedtechnologies into the science classroom. She holds a Masters fromTeachers College, Columbia University, and has done graduate work inscience education and psychology.
Email: [email protected]

Ann Sowd joined theBioBLAST teacher-leader team in early 1996. Sowd came to the teachingof biology with 12 years experience in clinical laboratories workingas a medical technologist. In addition to her involvement inBioBLAST, she currently is active in a county program called Scienceand Math on the Move (SAMM), which brings high-tech equipment such asgas chromatography to high school classrooms. She received a Mastersof Arts in Teaching degree from Kent State University in1995.
Email: [email protected]

1. National Research Council (1996), National Science EducationStandards, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
2. Ruberg, L.F. (1996), "Bridging the gap between science educationand space life science research," Proceeding of the Eco-Informa‘96, 1-6.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.