Computer simulations are discussed in the learning environment from two major perspectives: 1) teaching students how to build simulations and 2) developing simulations to teach students targeted concepts. This study is approaching learning with simulations from a different perspective. We are interested in how students’ understandings of simulations develop through an iterative design challenge that requires them to create their own simulations. We investigated what first-year engineering students develop as simulations in an open-ended learning environment. In this study, we analyzed 30 teams’ projects through grounded theory to develop categories of simulations. The resulting framework consisted of four levels. Level 1 involves only basic interactions. Level 2 consists of a basic input to output system, referred to as a black-box model. Level 3 is an animation of a simulation; it has the model and visualization components of a simulation, but is lacking interactivity (or user choice). Level 4 is a simulation; it consists of a model, visualization of the model, and interactivity. Based on this framework and the findings, this paper proposes a method for scaffolding student learning through an open-ended simulation development challenge.
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