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Mapping Scientific Knowledge in Diagram Form

May 30, 2005

PENSACOLA, Fla. - A research institute here is taking software designed in part to preserve scientists’ knowledge and giving it to schools around the world as a tool to help children learn.

The software was designed to literally map out what scientists know in diagram form. The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is providing the concept mapping software to individual schools as well as training teachers in Panama, the first country adopting Cmaps nationwide.

NASA and the Defense Department paid for most of the research. The military uses concept mapping both as a learning tool and to help unlock information from the minds of scientists for use by future generations, said Alberto Canas, the institute’s associate director and leading Cmap researcher.

“Having a tool that allows the scientist to express that (knowledge) is no different than trying to figure out what little Johnny knows about volcanoes in the fifth grade,” Canas said.

Cmaps can be used to assess student knowledge, encourage thinking and problem solving instead of rote learning, organize information for writing projects and help teachers write new curricula.

“We need to move education from a memorizing system and repetitive system to a dynamic system,” said Gaspar Tarte, who is spearheading education reform in Panama as the country’s secretary of governmental innovation.

“We would like to use tools and a methodology that helps children construct knowledge,” Tarte said. “Concept maps was the best tool that we found.”

A Cmap is a series of concepts, usually nouns, linked by phrases or verbs. Canas cites a simple Cmap on birds as an example.

One of several lines radiating from the main concept – “birds” – is labeled “have” and links it to such attributes as “beaks,”"hollow bones” and “feathers.” Another line is labeled “lays” and connects “birds” with “eggs.”

“It’s really saying ‘birds lay eggs’ – that’s a proposition – ‘birds have beaks,’ ‘birds have hollow bones,’” Canas said. “So it’s knowledge expressed as propositions.”

The institute’s software can be downloaded free for noncommercial use at . The site gets 300 downloads a day, Canas said.http://cmap.ihmc.us

Commercial software also is available from private companies. Besides versions for learning and knowledge preservation, the institute has developed Cmaps to serve as Web site browsers.

Canas, a native of Costa Rica, was a consultant to Panama’s government in the 1990s, but it did not embrace Cmaps until President Martin Torrijos, a Texas A&M University economics graduate, took office last year. Concept mapping now is part of a wider initiative to bring schools into the information age.

“Get Connected is the name of the project,” Tarte said. “We would like to include at least 1,000 schools in the project in the next five years, connect 1,000 schools to the Internet.”

The institute in February began training Panama’s teachers although many will do their concept mapping on paper until all schools get computers.

Donna Imatt, a teacher at Pensacola’s Brown-Barge Middle School, is the institute’s integrated curriculum consultant. Although long-familiar with concept mapping after teaching one of Canas’ sons, she had never used Cmaps with her students until returning from Panama.

“By seeing how they were using them, and being new learners to it – and adult learners – I knew that the kids would take to it probably more easily,” she said.

She was right.

“You can teach yourself,” said Caitlin Mulvey, 14, a recent Brown-Barge graduate.

Students in Imatt’s integrated curriculum course, which uses community service as a springboard to academic subjects, learned concept mapping from the institute’s online tutorial.

“It helps you reflect on what you’ve learned so that you can go into it deeper,” said Zach Morris-Webb, another Brown-Barge graduate. “It helps you realize what you actually did, the steps you took to actually get there.”

The Florida Institute of Education at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, also has been looking at concept maps to teach algebra. Bill Caldwell, a senior fellow there, said Cmaps for middle schoolers are expected to be completed by the end of this year.

U.S. schools, however, have been slow to accept concept mapping, Canas said.

“If you’re in Italy and you’re in a school and you like the software, you download it and install it,” he said.

In the United States, teachers typically must go through technology coordinators and other bureaucratic hoops, Canas said.

Joseph Novak, a senior researcher for the Pensacola institute, developed concept mapping in the 1970s at Cornell University, where he is a professor emeritus. The institute has computerized his idea, opening a new world of learning opportunities.

Computer Cmaps can be linked to Web sites and students in different classrooms, schools and even countries can collaborate on them.

As evidence of how well concept maps can work, he cited a school near San Jose, Costa Rica, where math scores soared after they were introduced.

“If you organize it as a concept map, then you have to understand the topic,” Canas said. “We want kids to become knowledge constructors instead of just information consumers.”

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On the Net:

Institute for Human and Machine Cognition: http://www.ihmc.us/




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