Connected Learning with Cognitive Maps in Sustainability Education

Hayden Freedman
PhD Student
University of California Irvine

NeedWhen teaching sustainability, it is important to bring together ideas from various disciplines and encourage systems thinking. One way to do so is via cognitive mapping activities, in which students build networks of sustainability concepts and relationships that reflect their understanding of the material. While significant research has demonstrated the benefit of these activities for individual students, there has been much less research focusing on connecting cognitive maps across both students and classrooms. However, doing so has the potential to provide a valuable corpus of sustainability knowledge that not only can serve as a rich basis for student learning but also contribute to the world’s knowledge of sustainability.By taking advantage of the collective understanding of past and current students, we seek to develop a learning framework that will help students to situate their own understanding of sustainability in the context of past students’ work. This will involve both generating new knowledge and connecting to previously existing knowledge structures, as well as correcting misconceptions held by previous students.Guiding QuestionsThis project focuses on the development and evaluation of educational modules that allow student cognitive maps to contribute to the learning of current and future students, as well as to the body of collective sustainability knowledge as a whole. Specifically, we ask the following research questions:How can collaborative cognitive mapping activities help students in a single class improve their understanding of sustainability concepts within and across fields?How can a corpus of knowledge collectively generated by past students help current students improve their own understanding of sustainability?How can the knowledge generated from cognitive mapping activities contribute to the corpus of public knowledge about sustainability?OutcomesThis research is in its first year of funding. We have deployed variations of collaborative cognitive-mapping activities in two sessions of a large undergraduate sustainability class, as well as started building out the software tools necessary to further address the research questions. Based on the data we collected, we have examined a workflow for adding student knowledge to Wikidata (in review – ICSWM) and proposed a methodology for quickly evaluating student understanding based on network analysis of the generated cognitive map (accepted – Sunbelt). We have also released an open source tool that can be deployed in classrooms to facilitate collaborative cognitive mapping, which is available here: ImpactsThe goal of this research is the development of a platform that allows synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and discussion between students in a single class as well as groups of sustainability classes across time and space. Through the multiple offerings of the three courses involved in this research over the three year period, this work will directly reach over 2,000 students. It will also involve the creation of an open-source code base that will be distributed with instructions for use in any sustainability class, giving the project the potential to reach students on an even larger scale. Another broader impact arises from the effort to connect the outputs of student assignments to the public Wikidata knowledge graph. Free and open knowledge graphs have the potential to be foundational for artificial intelligence systems and other initiatives seeking to serve the public good. Having thousands of students each contributing dozens of concepts and relationships to Wikidata can greatly enhance that public resource.


Bill Tomlinson, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA; Andre van der Hoek, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA;