Learning to understand complex biological systems by computer modeling and molecular mechanistic reasoning
Tongeren, S. van
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Students experience difficulties when they try to understand complex biological systems. When asked to explain a phenomenon, most students are not able to connect the different organizational levels and they tend to reduce the complexity of the system, focusing only on one structure instead of seeing the system as a whole. In this paper it is investigated how students can be guided to explain biological systems as a mechanism during a computer modelling task and how this combination of guiding their reasoning and computer modelling leads to a better understanding of the system. A new SimSketch application was designed to model the electrical properties of a nerve cell. Eight preuniversity students tested out this new software while they were guided to reason mechanically. Detailed analysis of students’ conversations, modelling actions and filled-in worksheets revealed that it was possible to promote a mechanistic reasoning style during the modeling task and that this helped the students to gain deeper understanding of the target phenomenon. Hence, this exploratory research suggests that combining computer modelling with promotion of mechanistic reasoning is a powerful educational method to understand complex biological systems.