Building Systems from Scratch

Research on the development of computational and systems thinking in middle school students through explorations of complex earth systems.

Lead Staff:
Gillian Puttick
Project Staff:
Michael Cassidy

Non-TERC Investigators

Eli Tucker-Raymond


Computing has been a central tool in the development of modern understanding in many fields of science and engineering. Skills such as modeling, data visualization, and computational thinking (CT) are all necessary for building a diverse scientific workforce that will secure a strong future for the United States.

The Building Systems from Scratch project has developed and is studying an education program that integrates computing into middle school Earth systems science by interweaving game design, CT practices and science learning. The project aims to create a learning environment where young people learn to think from a systems perspective, essential to solving complex scientific problems. Students engage in CT practices such as modeling, abstraction, management of complexity, and creative design, as well as iterative testing and debugging, as they design their games. The program includes:

  1. A standards-aligned curriculum focused on systems thinking practices
  2. A teacher professional development workshop with supporting materials,
  3. A teacher leader guide for sustainable implementation of the program, and
  4. A website to support program materials, activities, and communication.

Research Activity

The curriculum was designed to teach students the causes and effects of climate change, and strategies for mitigation and adaptation. In order to do this, they need to learn and apply CT practices related to the climate system.

Our goal was to create a truly integrated learning experience that focused equally on climate science, CT practices, and game design. This approach was validated by data from analysis of Y2 games and pre/post assessments which show that that students made significant learning gains in both. Implementation is complete after 3 years, and analysis of Y3 data is currently under way.


The project has worked with fifteen 8th grade teachers, in three school districts, two in MA and one in OH, across three years; this has reached approximately 1,840 8th grade students, approximately half of whom are from groups underrepresented in STEM and computer science fields.


Building systems from Scratch from on Vimeo.

Related Work

Tucker-Raymond, E., Puttick, G., Cassidy, M., Harteveld, C. & Troiano, G. (in revision). “I Broke Your Game!”: Critique among Middle Schoolers Designing Computer Games about Climate Change

Troiano, G., Snodgrass, S., Argimak, E., Robles, G., Smith, G., Cassidy, M., Tucker-Raymond, E., Puttick, G. and Harteveld, C. “Is My Game OK Dr. Scratch? Exploring Programming and Computational Thinking Development in Student-Designed Games.” Proceedings of the 18th ACM International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, Boise ID, June 2019, pp. 208-219.

Puttick, , Troiano, G., Cassidy, M., Tucker-Raymond, E., Harteveld, C. & Smith, G. (2019). “Exploring how student designers model climate system complexity in computer games.” Proceedings of the 2018 Connected Learning Summit, Cambridge MA, August 2018, pp. 196-204.

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Puttick, G., Puttick, G. & Tucker-Raymond, E. “Building systems from Scratch: An exploratory study of students learning about climate change.,” Journal of Science Education and Technology, v.27, 2018, p. 306. doi:10.1007/s10956-017-9725-x

Puttick, G., Tucker-Raymond, E. & Barnes, J. “Environmental attitudes in Youth-created Computer Games about Climate Change,” Proceedings of the Game+Learning+Society 12 conference, 2017.

Hoover, A., Barnes, J., Fatehi, B., Moreno-León, J., Puttick, G., Tucker-Raymond, E. and Harteveld, C. Assessing Computational Thinking in Students’ Game Designs. Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play, Companion Extended Abstracts, October 16-19, 2016, Austin, Texas, USA

Hands On! Fall/Winter 2017

Hands On! Article

Young People Designing Games About Climate Change

Feature // By Gilian Puttick & Eli Tucker-Raymond, TERC, & Jackie Barnes, Northeastern University

Read Here