Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Education Research Association, New York, March 24-28.
Agent-based modeling (ABM) has been increasingly used by scientists to study a wide range of phenomena such as species in an ecosystem or molecules in a chemical reaction (Bonabeau, 1999; Wilensky & Reisman, 2006). Such phenomena, in which the elements within the system have multiple behaviors and a large number of interaction patterns, have been termed complex and are studied in the field called complex systems (Holland, 1995). Typical of complex phenomena is that the cumulative (‘aggregate’) patterns at the macro level are not premeditated by the “lower-level” micro-elements. For example, flocking birds do not intend to construct an arrow-shaped structure (Figure 1), or molecules are not aware of the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Rather, each element (“agent”) follows its local rules, and the overall pattern emergesas epiphenomenal to these multiple local behaviors. In the mid-nineties, researchers realized that ABM could have a significant impact in education ((Resnick & Wilensky, 1993; Wilensky & Resnick, 1995). To study the behavior of a chemical reaction, students would observe and articulate only at the behavior of individual molecules — the chemical reaction is construed as emerging from the myriad interactions of these molecular “agents.”