"Hands-on modeling and simulation of systems concepts"
The behavior of systems is best understood through interactive simulations. In addition, modeling of simple systems promotes better understanding of core systems concepts. In recent years, much progress has been done in the field of modeling and simulation tools for complex systems. Nevertheless, modeling of systems is not accessible to many students or novices. We present System Blocks, a new digital manipulative that enables hands-on modeling and simulation of dynamic systems. System Blocks are a set of physical blocks with embedded computation that provides an easier introduction to core concepts of systems such as positive and negative feedbacks, levels and rates, time delays, and behavior over time. System Blocks modeling language is based on the stocks & flows modeling technique, originally developed by Forrester as the foundation of the System Dynamics field. Each block has a predefined behavior, including stocks, inflows, outflows, constants, variables, and comparators. When connected together in different arrangements, these blocks can simulate different feedback-based systems, such as exponential growth and decay, goal-seeking growth and decay, as well as different oscillating systems. The simulated dynamic behavior is presented in real-time using a variety of mediums, including numerical display, line graph, moving lights, and MIDI-based sound. We report on an exploratory study we conducted with ten 5th grade students and five preschool students. These students used System Blocks to interact with systems concepts that are traditionally not taught at schools. We conducted one-on-one interviews with the students while they used System Blocks to model and simulate systems that relate to their own lives. We observed how the 5th grade students, with the appropriate tools and support, are able to learn concepts and techniques such as stocks and flows mapping, net-flow dynamics, and positive feedback to the extent that they can generate their own examples using these concepts. We observed how 4-year-old preschool students are capable of using System Blocks as a modeling and simulation tool, recognizing processes such as accumulation from a general representation of moving lights. Our preliminary findings suggest that using System Blocks as a modeling and simulation platform can provide an opportunity for students to confront their misconceptions about dynamic behavior, and help students revise their mental models towards a deeper understanding of systems concept.