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CoMPASS: Integrating Digital Text in Design-Based Science Classes

Sadhana Puntambekar


Background: The CoMPASS project aims to enhance science learning in middle schools by integrating learning from hands-on science learning with learning from scientific (digital text). Hands-on activities in which students experience and manipulate scientific phenomena are an integral part of current project-based and design-based approaches to science learning. However, a concern raised about the focus on hands-on activities is that students can concentrate on the construction activities, and build a working solution by trial and error, without understanding the underlying deep science principles and phenomena. Research has pointed out the important role of text in science. This project integrates the two modes of science inquiry.

Purpose: The project has two major goals. First is the aim to further the understanding of integrating the conceptual learning from informational text with the experimental and hands-on activities in a design-based classes. Second is the aim to understand students' changing representations as they use multiple electronic texts in their science explorations. As electronic texts become ubiquitous in educational settings, there is an increasing need to understand how students in project-based and design-based classrooms engage in learning from multiple texts in the context of an inquiry classroom. This project aims to examine students' learning trajectories by taking into consideration the strategies that students use, student characteristics such as prior knowledge, metacognitive awareness, their group interactions and the relationships of these to navigation and learning.

Intervention: The CoMPASS project consists of a hypertext system, CoMPASS and curriculum modules based on the pedagogical framework of Learning By Design (Kolodner, et al., 2003), designed for two topics: simple machines and forces and motion. The CoMPASS system is designed with two tightly integrated representations: a textual representation of the content units and a visual representation in a form of concept maps. Each screen in CoMPASS represents a concept such as mass or gravity, providing both a concept map (left half of the screen) and a textual description (right half of the screen). The CoMPASS software environment is used in conjunction with the curriculum units that we have designed, broadly based on the pedagogical principles of learning by design.

Setting: CoMPASS implementations are being conducted in school districts in Wisconsin: rural, urban and suburban schools are participating.

Research Design: The studies are being conducted in middle schools in WI. The schools are in rural, urban and suburban areas. Each of these sites provides natural variability in student preparation and motivation, teacher expertise in the topic, and individual classroom dynamics. During each year of the 5-year project, a study of the factors affecting learning will lead to a set of design principles that can then be applied in other contexts.

The methodology includes rigorous analytical tools systematically studying the enactment of the intervention in a classroom context starting with a focus on classroom dynamics and sequencing. The focus will then move to teacher practices subsequently zooming in on students knowledge representations. Data in the form of pre- and post-tests of Physics content knowledge, student generated concept maps, questionnaires to understand use of the CoMPASS software, classroom audios and videos are being collected.

Findings: We have just begun collecting data. The first set of results are currently being analyzed.

You can learn more about this project by visiting The CoMPASS software can be found at