Instruction in Computer Modeling Can Support Broad Application of Complex Systems Knowledge

Jonathan G. Tullis, Robert L. Goldstone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Learners often struggle to grasp the important, central principles of complex systems, which describe how interactions between individual agents can produce complex, aggregate-level patterns. Learners have even more difficulty transferring their understanding of these principles across superficially dissimilar instantiations of the principles. Here, we provide evidence that teaching high school students an agent-based modeling language can enable students to apply complex system principles across superficially different domains. We measured student performance on a complex systems assessment before and after 1 week training in how to program models using NetLogo (Wilensky, 1999a). Instruction in NetLogo helped two classes of high school students apply complex systems principles to a broad array of phenomena not previously encountered. We argue that teaching an agent-based computational modeling language effectively combines the benefits of explicitly defining the abstract principles underlying agent-level interactions with the advantages of concretely grounding knowledge through interactions with agent-based models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number4
JournalFrontiers in Education
StatePublished - Mar 6 2017


  • agent-based modeling
  • complex systems
  • computational thinking
  • programming
  • transfer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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