Environmental issues are complex and understanding them involves integration of different areas of knowledge, feedback and time delays, however strategies to cope with complexity are not often used or taught in environmental education. The aim of this thesis is to examine the benefit of three such strategies for environmental education: multiple external representations, learning from models, and collaborative learning. The socio-environmental system modelled was visitor impact in a national park in Australia. Students in Year 9 and 10 from two schools were given a text description (Text group) and either a system dynamics model (SDM group), an agent-based model (ABM group), or both models (SDM & ABM group). This experimental design allowed learning outcomes (environmental and system dynamics knowledge, and understanding of the socio-environmental system) and use of the model(s) (in terms of the proportion of time spent on each screen, activities, and strategies) to be compared in each learning environment (individual and collaborative).
Multiple external representations were the most successful strategy in the individual learning environment in terms of increases in environmental knowledge. However, students given only the system dynamics model had greater understanding of the system, and students given only the agent-based model increased environmental knowledge easily identified in the animated representation.
Prior knowledge, patterns of use, strategies for changing variables and the representational affordances of the models explained some of these differences. In particular, prior knowledge was an important indicator of how students coordinated use of the models in the SDM & ABM group.
Learning with a system dynamics model was the most successful strategy for students in the collaborative learning environment. Differences between the learning environments were detected in all groups with respect to both learning outcomes and use of the models due to prior knowledge, interrogation of the models, and the learning environments themselves.
These experiments have provided evidence that strategies for understanding complex systems provide viable methods of communicating complex ideas to school-aged students with varying levels of prior knowledge. In particular, multiple external representations provided students with flexibility in how they learned; models allowed students to experiment with a system otherwise not allowed; and a collaborative learning environment facilitated students’ interpretation of a system dynamics model.