An Interdisciplinary Guided Inquiry on Estuarine Transport Using a Computer Model in High School ClassroomsThe American Biology Teacher


Kit Yu Karen Chan, Sylvia Yang, Max E. Maliska, Daniel Grünbaum
Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous) / Education / Agricultural and Biological Sciences (all)


Optical determination of intracellular water in apoptotic cells

Michael A. Model, Ethan Schonbrun

Incidental and Accidental Learning: Use Them!

B. A. School, A. Cooper

Using analogue computers in schools

D J Hinson


26 The american biology Teacher volume 74, no. 1, January 2012


The National Science Education Standards have highlighted the importance of active learning and reflection for contemporary scientific methods in K–12 classrooms, including the use of models. Computer modeling and visualization are tools that researchers employ in their scientific inquiry process, and often computer models are used in collaborative projects across disciplines. The goal of this project was to develop and field-test a module that used a computer model to teach marine sciences content in an applied, inquiry-based, and collaborative manner. Students used an estuarine transport model to explore the question of how circulation patterns affect planktonic organisms, demonstrating the interdisciplinary interaction of physics and biology. Our experience suggests that computer models, when used for inquiry, can help foster students’ understanding of the nature of science and critical-thinking skills.

Key Words: Interdisciplinary lesson; environmental science; estuarine transport;


Project MotivationJ JJ

Calls from the National Research Council (1996) and National Science Foundation (2000) emphasized the importance of providing students with authentic science experiences through active inquiry. They also highlighted the importance of using and understanding the nature of models as conceptual representations that are developed and tested. Computer models and simulations are important tools in modern scientific inquiry and are cornerstones of many interdisciplinary, collaborative projects. Therefore, introducing students to computer modeling is an important component of understanding modern scientific techniques.

Interactive illustrations are now available for a variety of topics, such as molecular genetics (Marbach-Ad et al., 2008) and chemical bonds (Frailich et al., 2009). These computer modeling tools have been shown to significantly improve students’ understanding of abstract ideas by making them more tangible (Harris et al., 2009).

However, these examples represent only one of the diverse ways that scientists utilize computer models.

Scientists conduct experiments with computer models to understand phenomena and to generate predictions. For instance, a circulation model of Chesapeake Bay helped scientists study variations in flow patterns (Li et al., 2005). This model also enabled scientists to test hypotheses regarding how changes in weather and/or land use would affect these flow patterns and how organisms are subsequently dispersed (North et al., 2010). Using computer models in an inquiry-based manner requires (1) understanding the concepts of variables and model limitations, (2) formulating testable hypotheses, (3) collecting and analyzing data (model output), and (4) drawing conclusions from the data (de

Jong, 2006). Therefore, computer modeling can potentially equip students with scientific process skills essential to understanding scientific concepts.

In addition to being a tool for scientific inquiry, computer models can also provide students the opportunity to work collaboratively and across disciplines. Working collaboratively and in an interdisciplinary manner are essential skills for scientists (Sung et al., 2003). To date, several guided-inquiry activities that utilize computer models are available (e.g., TELS Center at; Linn et al., 2006). However, these models focus on a single discipline or subject (e.g., Marbach-Ad et al., 2008) and are often designed for individual, independent investigation (e.g., Frailich et al., 2009). Thus, there is an unmet need for well-designed, field-tested classroom modeling activities that are both collaborative and interdisciplinary.

We chose to model estuaries because they are good subjects for interdisciplinary learning. First, estuaries are semi-enclosed areas where fresh water and sea water meet, and therefore they are good case studies for physical principles on density and currents. Second, estuaries are important habitats and nursery grounds for many ecologically and economically important organisms (e.g., crabs and salmon) and, therefore, are places of ecological interest. The rich biological diversity in estuaries also provides a wide array of examples of how organisms adapt to their physical environment (interactions

Introducing students to computer modeling is an important component of understanding modern scientific techniques.

The American Biology Teacher, vol. 74, no. 1, pages 26-33. iSSn 0002-7685, electronic iSSn 1938-4211. ©2012 by national association of biology Teachers. all rights reserved. request permission to photocopy or reproduce article content at the university of california Press’s rights and Permissions Web site at

Doi: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.1.7 a r t i c l e An Interdisciplinary Guided Inquiry on Estuarine Transport Using a

Computer Model in High School


K i t Y u K a r e n C h a n , S Y lv i a Ya n g ,

M a x e . M a l i S K a , D a n i e l g r ü n b a u M

The american biology Teacher eSTuarine TranSPorT 27 of physics and biology). Finally, because estuaries are often heavily populated and threatened by human activities, they illustrate how social sciences interact with natural sciences.

Module Development & DetailsJ JJ

The module is based on an estuarine circulation model (MacCready, 2007) and a particle-tracking algorithm developed by Dr. Grünbum to study the role of behaviors in particle transport. We simplified and developed a graphical user interface for this model to allow students to investigate how changes in estuarine circulation would affect dispersal outcome. We also designed activities to provide students with background information on density, estuarine circulation, and plankton ecology. We consulted three NSF-OACIS (National Science

Foundation-Ocean and Coastal Interdisciplinary Sciences) GK–12 doctoral fellows who have worked in high school classrooms to ensure content relevance and appropriate presentation format (for more information on this program, visit http://depts.washington. edu/oacis/). The module was designed to align with national and