Menu Harvard Graduate School of Education

Tina Grotzer

Principal Research Scientist in Education
Member of the Faculty of Education
Tina Grotzer

Degree:  Ed.D., Harvard University, (1993); Ed.M., Harvard University, (1985)
Email:  [javascript protected email address]
Phone:  617.496.4386
Personal Site:   Link to Site
Vitae/CV:   Tina Grotzer.pdf
Office:  Longfellow 421
Office Hours Contact:  Email the Faculty Member
Faculty Assistant:  Cindy Floyd


Tina Grotzer is a cognitive scientist whose research identifies ways in which understandings about the nature of causality impact our ability to deal with complexity in our world. Her work has important implications for how we deal with global and ecological issues and is concerned with the environmental injustices that result from our inability to reason well about complexity. Her work leverages classroom settings and technology to teach students about ecosystems and causal complexity. Grotzer directs the Causal Learning in a Complex World Research Lab. It has four dominant strands: 1) How reasoning about causal complexity interacts with our decisions in the everyday world; 2) How causal understanding develops in supported contexts; 3) How causal understanding interacts with science learning (with the goal of developing curriculum to support deep understanding); and 4) the public understanding of science given the nature of science, the nature of causal complexity and the architecture of the human mind. Her work is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). She received a Career Award from NSF in 2009 and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011, one of the highest honors given by the United States government to researchers at this stage in their careers.

Grotzer is a co-PI with Chris Dede on the EcoMOBILE and EcoXPT Projects, funded by the NSF, extensions of an earlier project, EcoMUVE, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The projects involve developing and testing technological tools including virtual worlds and hand-held mobile devices to teach the inherent ecosystems complex causal dynamics to middle school students. She is deeply committed to helping teachers use the knowledge gained through her research and has authored the Causal Patterns in Science curriculum series and a recent book entitled, Learning Causality in a Complex World: Understandings of Consequence. She collaborates with scientists from diverse organizations including the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She has advised science and sustainability-oriented programs for children's television. Prior to her work at HGSE, Grotzer was a program coordinator and teacher in public and private schools for 14 years. She received her doctorate and her master's from Harvard University following her undergraduate degree at Vassar College. Her teaching and courses are focused on the intersection of cognitive science and education.

Click here to see a full list of Tina Grotzer's courses.


Morningstar Award for Teaching Excellence, Harvard Graduate School of Education,(2013)

Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers,(2011)

Early Career Award, National Science Foundation,(2009)

Sponsored Projects

EcoMOD: Integrating Computational Thinking into Ecosystems Science Education via Modeling in Immersive Virtual Worlds (2016-2019)
National Science Foundation

Under Track 1 Design and Development of the STEM+C program, the Ecolearn group at Harvard University will develop and study ecosystems science curricula that introduce modeling concepts and processes to third graders, based on computational thinking and programming. Research has revealed that even young students can demonstrate sophisticated reasoning and understandings related to complex causal patterns and features, and can engage in computer programming activities. The EcoMOD (Model/Modify, Observe, Design) project will build on and extend our prior EcoMUVE curriculum for middle school, using a design-based research approach to combine an immersive virtual environment with hands-on interactive modeling through a scaffolded computational interface. EcoMOD will offer links between multiple forms of representation to help connect visual models to dynamic representations of ecosystem interactions in a simulated forest setting. The curriculum will provide a highly supported, object-oriented programming environment similar to Scratch or Starlogo NOVA with a simple, scaffolded block interface, customized to focus on ecosystems modeling and designed specifically for younger children. EcoMOD's learning goals in habitats and food webs are taught using a systems perspective, shifting the instructional focus from comprehension of static representations to consequential student interaction with dynamic computational models.

EcoMOD will explore these research questions:
RQ1 - Using a design-based research methodology, which approaches to abstraction and representation offer the best scaffolding to students? Given this scaffolding, to what extent are students able to construct, modify, and interpret computational models that represent ecological concepts in EcoMOD?

RQ2- To what extent do students show gains in understanding causal dynamics in ecosystem science content knowledge and affective measures after using EcoMOD?

RQ3 - How does teachers' use of the curricula unfold in practice? What types of supports are necessary prior to and during the implementation?

RQ4- To what extent do teachers see usage of the EcoMOD curriculum in typical school settings as desirable and as feasible from a practical perspective?

EcoMOD will develop measures and methods for assessing the outcomes of this third grade curriculum on students and teachers. The resultant proof of concept, case-based data can inform future research on controlled comparison studies.

EcoXPT: Affordances for experimentation in an immersive world to support the learning of ecosystem science and complex causality (2014-2017)
National Science Foundation

This project develops and studies a new curriculum, EcoXPT, that works alongside the previously developed EcoMUVE curriculum. EcoMUVE consists of two multi-user virtual environment (MUVE)-based modules, which center on immersive pond and forest virtual ecosystems. Each module represents an ecological scenario involving complex causality, providing a richly textured, situated environment where, through modeling and instructional support, students can explore, observe, and collect data in rich, immersive, simulated virtual ecosystems. EcoXPT goes beyond observational inquiry to center on experiment-based inquiry as practiced in the ecosystems science field and called for in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), through adding iterative cycles of experimentation, reflection, and revision. Interviews with ecosystem scientists support the team’s ability to develop EcoXPT so that students can authentically test their own hypotheses so as to better understand causal patterns they could previously only observe, thereby extending their comprehension of underlying causal relationships. Students are be able to manipulate variables that represent the connection between individual ecosystem components, as well as develop a concept map linked to experimental evidence. They design small- and large-scale experiments to discover both short- and long-term, expected and unexpected effects. Three summative studies will be conducted to assess how EcoXPT works in contrast to a Business-as-Usual, EcoMUVE, and Non-immersive simulation curricula.

EcoMOBILE: Blended real and virtual immersive experiences for learning complex causality and ecosystems science (2011-2016)
National Science Foundation

Content knowledge about ecosystems and populations is an important strand of the life science content standards, and the processes underlying ecosystems exemplify sophisticated causal mechanisms (e.g., systems dynamics) foundational for advanced science and mathematics. However, even after instruction, students often hold inaccurate interpretations about ecosystems’ structural patterns and systemic causality. Prior research (Grotzer & Basca, 2003) has shown that students often have difficulty reasoning about the causal complexity inherent in ecosystems. Co-PI Grotzer’s NSF-funded Causal Patterns curriculum (Grotzer, 2002) has shown success in helping students understand and explain the causal dynamics of ecosystems. However, teachers struggle to convey in hands-on, engaging ways difficult concepts involving causality involving time delays, spatial distance, non-obvious causes, and population-level effects.
To meet this shortfall in current, largely textbook-based curricula, with Institute of Education Sciences (IES) funding we have developed and are studying EcoMUVE ( a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE)-based ecosystems science curriculum centered on grades 6 through 8 life science National Science Education Standards (NSES). EcoMUVE is an inquiry-based, four week curriculum that includes two one-week modules focused on experiencing immersive, simulated virtual ecosystems through observation, with scaffolded, collaborative interpretation by students. The curriculum centers on ecosystems science, the inquiry process, and the complex causality inherent in ecosystems dynamics. Our research findings in classrooms show promising results on the perceived value, usability, implementation feasibility, and student and teacher experiences associated with our curriculum, as well as pilot data showing gains in student learning and motivation (Metcalf et al., 2010).
We hypothesize that student understanding and self-efficacy in science would be enhanced if students using EcoMUVE could also use powerful mobile broadband devices (MBDs) to explore the real ecosystems in their own backyard. MBDs will allow students to collect and share data using probeware, cameras, and microphones; access on-demand, on-site information about ecosystem components; and visit geo-referenced locations to directly observe critical components of the ecosystem and to experience virtual simulations related to their underlying causality. To study these hypotheses, we plan to develop EcoMOBILE (Ecosystems Mobile Outdoor Blended Immersive Learning Environment): a complementary set of learning experiences based on using MBDs to infuse virtual information and simulated experiences into real world ecosystems. We aim to determine what types of complementary learning and engagement real world settings infused with virtual resources add to immersive simulations.
With prior funding from the U.S. Department of Education, we developed and studied “augmented reality” curricula ( for learning middle school mathematics and English/Language-Arts (O’Shea, Mitchell, Johnston, & Dede, 2009; Dunleavy, Dede, & Mitchell, 2009). Since that research was completed, powerful mobile broadband devices are now the primary technology infrastructure used by young people (Chiong & Shuler, 2010; Project Tomorrow, 2010); the EcoMobile project will study their potential power in academic settings to improve motivation and deepen learning of ecosystems science. Combined, EcoMUVE and EcoMobile will encompass the types of learning strengths and preferences many students today bring to school, based on their usage of social media and Internet resources on mobile devices, as well as their involvement in immersive gaming.

CAREER: Learning About Complex Causality in the Classroom (2009-2014)
National Science Foundation

In the past decade, there has been a growing interest in how children reason about the nature of causality. This work builds upon a rich literature ranging from social psychology to philosophy and has garnered the attention of researchers in child development, cognitive science, the learning sciences, and science education. The program of research has three strands: 1) Naturalistic study of children’s complex causal reasoning in everyday contexts; 2) Microgenetic studies of causal learning over time in supported contexts and; 3) Learning about the nature of causality in curriculum contexts. In this project the research team investigates children’s causal understanding in contexts that are likely to elicit it, as well as what learning about causality looks with scaffolds specifically designed to support children’s developing understanding. The work focuses on preschool through middle childhood.


Grotzer,T.A., Solis, S.L., Tutwiler, M.S., & Powell, M.M. (in press). A study of students’ reasoning about probabilistic causality: Implications for understanding complex systems and designing instructional support. Instructional Science.,(forthcoming)

Grotzer,T.A., Solis, S.L., & Derbiszewska, K. (in press). Leveraging fourth and sixth graders’ experiences to reveal understanding of the forms and features of distributed causality. Cognition and Instruction.,(forthcoming)

Wu, B., Wang, M., Grotzer,T.A., Liu, J. & Johnson, J.M. (in press). Effects of a Cognitive-Mapping Tool in Supporting the Learning of Clinical Reasoning, BMC Medical Education.,(forthcoming)

Chen, J. A., Tutwiler, M.S., Metcalf, S.J., Kamarainen, A., Grotzer, T.A., & Dede, C.J. (2016). A multi-user virtual environment to support students’ self-efficacy and interest in science: A Latent Growth Model Analysis. Learning and Instruction, 41 11-22.,(2016)

Grotzer, T.A. & Solis, S.L. (2016). Curating experience: The role of learner agency in museums and schools and the development of adaptive expertise. In D. Sobel & J. Jipson (Eds.) Relating research and practice: Cognitive development in museum settings. New York: Psychology Press.,(2016)

Kamarainen, A., Metcalf, S., Grotzer,T.A. & Dede, C. (2016). Contextualizing STEM learning using mobile technologies and augmented reality. In H. Crompton & J. Traxler (Eds.) Mobile Learning and STEM: Case Studies in Practice (98-124,) New York: Routledge.,(2016)

Kamarainen, A.M., Metcalf, S.J., Grotzer,T.A., Brimhall, C., & Dede, C.J. (2016). Designing an augmented reality experience to support situated instruction about biogeochemical cycles in outdoor learning environments. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 7(2), 111-130.,(2016)

Metcalf, S.J., Kamarainen, A., Cooke, C.B., Tukay, S., Grotzer,T.A. & Dede, C. J. (2016). Teacher perceptions of the practicality and effectiveness of immersive ecological simulations as classroom curricula. A.W. Cheney, A.W. & K. P. Terry (Eds.) Utilizing virtual and personal learning environments for optimal learning, (pp 22-45) New York: IGI Global.,(2016)

Solis, S.L. & Grotzer, T.A. (2016). They work together to roar: Kindergarteners’ understanding of an interactive causal task. Journal of Research in Childhood Education 30(3), 422-439.,(2016)

Grotzer, T.A. & Solis, S.L. (2015). Action at an attentional distance: A study of children’s reasoning about causes and effects involving spatial and attentional discontinuity. Journal for Research in Science Teaching,52(7), 1003-1030.,(2015)

Grotzer, T.A. (2015). Causal reasoning: What is it and how does it relates to science teaching and learning? In R. Gunstone (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Science Education. (pp 142-146)New York: Springer.,(2015)

Kamarainen, A. M., Metcalf, S., Grotzer,T.A., & Dede, C. (2015). Exploring ecosystems from the inside: how immersive multi-user virtual environments can support development of epistemologically grounded modeling practices in ecosystem science instruction. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 24(2), 148-167.,(2015)

Grotzer, T.A. & Tutwiler, M.S. (2014). Simplifying causal complexity: How interactions between modes of causal induction and information availability lead to heuristic driven reasoning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 8(3), 97-114.,(2014)

Wu, B., Wang, M., Johnson, J.M. & Grotzer, T.A. (2014). Improving the learning of clinical reasoning through computer-based cognitive representation. Medical Education Online, 19: 25940 -,(2014)

Grotzer, T.A., Powell, M. Kamarainen, A.K., Courter, C., Tutwiler, M.S., Metcalf, S. & Dede, C. (2014). Turning transfer inside out: The affordances of virtual worlds and mobile devices in real world contexts for teaching about causality across time and distance in ecosystems. Technology, Knowledge, and Learning, 19(3). Available on-line, Dec. 24, 2014, DOI: 10.1007/s10758-014-9241-5.,(2014)

Metcalf, S.J., Chen, J.A., Kamarainen, A.M., Frumin, K.M., Vickrey, T.L., Grotzer, T.A., Dede, C.J. (2014). Shifts in student motivation during usage of a Multi-User Virtual Environment for ecosystem science. International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 5(4) 1-15.,(2014)

Grotzer, T.A., Kamarainen, A., Tutwiler, M.S, Metcalf, S, & Dede, C. (2013). Learning to reason about ecosystems dynamics over time: The challenges of an event-based causal focus. BioScience.63(4), 288-296.,(2013)

Metcalf, S.J., Kamarainen, A., Tutwiler, M.S., Grotzer, T.A. & Dede, C. J. (2013). Teacher perceptions of the practicality and effectiveness of immersive ecological simulations as classroom curricula. International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments. 4(3), 66-77.,(2013)

Grotzer, T. (2013). Representational competence in science education: Its fundamental role in the epistemology of today’s science. In Brizuela, B. M., & Gravel, B. E. (Eds.) "Show me what you know": Exploring representations across STEM disciplines. (pp. 119-124) New York, NY: Teachers College Press.,(2013)

Tutwiler, M.S. & Grotzer, T. (2013). Why immersive, interactive simulation belongs in the pedagogical toolkit of “Next Generation” science: Facilitating student understanding of complex causal dynamics. In I. Saleh (Ed.) Italic/Approaches and Strategies in Next Generation Science Learning, Hershey, PA: IGI Global.,(2013)

Kamarainen, A., Metcalf, S., Grotzer, T., Browne, A., Mazzuca, D., Tutwiler, M.S., & Dede, C., (2013). Integrating augmented reality and probeware with environmental education field trips. Computers & Education. (68) 545-556.,(2013)

Dede, C., Grotzer, T. A., Kamarainen, A., Metcalf, S, & Tutwiler, M. S. (2012). EcoMOBILE: Blending virtual and augmented realities for learning ecosystems science and complex causality. Journal of Immersive Education.,(2012)

Grotzer, T.A. (2012). Learning causality in a complex world: Understandings of consequence. Lanham,MD: Rowman Littlefield.,(2012)

Grotzer, T.A. & Mittlefehdlt, S. (2012). Students’ metacognitive behavior and ability to transfer causal concepts, In A. Zohar & J. Dori (Eds.) Metacognition and science education (40). pp 79-100) New York: Springer Science.,(2012)

Metcalf, S.J., Kamarainen, A., M.S. Tutwiler, Grotzer, T.A. & Dede, C. J. (2011). Ecosystem science learning via multi-user virtual environments. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations 3(1)86-90.,(2011)

Grotzer, T.A., Miller, R.B., Lincoln, R.A. (2011). Perceptual, attentional, and cognitive heuristics that interact with the nature of science to complicate public understanding of science, In M.S. Khine (Ed.) Advances in the nature of science research: Concepts and methodologies,(pp. 27-49) New York: Springer.,(2011)

Grotzer, T.A. (2011). Public understanding of cognitive neuroscience research findings: Trying to peer beyond enchanted glass. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(3)108-114.,(2011)

Grotzer, T.A., Basca, B., & Donis, K. (2011). Causal patterns in ecosystems: Lessons to infuse into ecosystems units: Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2011)

Grotzer, T.A. (2011, April). Building the understanding of our youngest scientists in a complex world. Science Teachers’ Association of New York State Newsletter.,(2011)

Grotzer, T.A. (2010). Reasoning about causal complexity in science and beyond. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2010)

Liu, Y. & Grotzer, T.A. (2009). Looking forward: Teaching the nature of the science of today and tomorrow. In I.M. Saleh & M.S. Khine (Eds.) Fostering scientific habits of mind: Pedagogical knowledge and best practices in science education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.,(2009)

Callan, E., Grotzer, T., Kagan, J., Nisbett, R.E., Perkins, D.N., & Shulman, L.S. (2009). Education and a civil society: Teaching evidence-based decision making. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Cambridge, MA.,(2009)

Wong, A., Morris, L., Jasti, C., Liu, D, & Grotzer, T.A. (2009). Nature of scientific thinking: Lessons designed to develop understanding of the nature of science and modeling. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2009)

Grotzer, T.A. & Lincoln, R. Educating for “intelligent environmental action” in an age of global warming, in S. Moser & L. Dilling (Eds.) Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.,(2007)

Zuckerman O. Grotzer, T.A., & Leahy, K. FlowBlocks as a conceptual bridge between understanding the structure and behavior of a complex causal system. Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Bloomington, Indiana.,(2005)

Perkins, D.N. & Grotzer, T.A. (2005). Dimensions of causal understanding: The role of complex causal models in students’ understanding of science. Studies in Science Education. 41, 117-165.,(2005)

Grotzer, T.A., Houghton, C.A., Basca, B., Mittlefehldt, S. Lincoln, R., & MacGillivray, D. Causal patterns in density: Lessons to infuse into air pressure units. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2005)

Grotzer, T.A. Causal patterns in simple circuits: Lessons to infuse into electricity units. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2004)

Grotzer, T.A. Putting science within reach: Addressing patterns of thinking that limit science learning. Principal Leadership, October.,(2004)

Grotzer, T.A., & Basca, B.B. How does grasping the underlying causal structures of ecosystems impact students’ understanding? Journal of Biological Education, 38(1) 16-29.,(2003)

Grotzer, T.A. Learning to understand the forms of causality implicit in scientific explanations. Studies in Science Education, 39, 1-74.,(2003)

Basca, B.B. & Grotzer, T.A. Causal patterns in air pressure-related phenomena: Lessons to infuse into air pressure units. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2003)

Grotzer, T.A. Causal patterns in ecosystems: Lessons to infuse into ecosystems units. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(2002)

Grotzer, T.A., Howick, L., Tishman, S., & Wise, D. Art works for schools: A curriculum for teaching thinking in and through the arts. Lincoln, MA: DeCordova Museum.,(2002)

Grotzer, T.A. Expanding our vision for educational technology: Procedural, conceptual, and structural knowledge. Educational Technology, March-April, 52-59.,(2002)

Grotzer, T.A. & Perkins, D.N. Teaching intelligence: A performance conception. In R.A. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence, New York: Cambridge University Press.,(2000)

Grotzer, T.A. & Bell, B. Negotiating the funnel: Guiding students toward understanding elusive generative concepts. In L. Hetland & S. Veenema (Eds.) The Project Zero classroom: Views on understanding. President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(1999)

Grotzer, T.A. The keys to inquiry, Hypertext Document, Everyday Classroom Tools Website: Harvard Smithsonian. Available:,(1998)

Grotzer, T.A. & Sudbury M. Where is the language of causality? Think Magazine, December.,(1998)

Perkins, D. N. & Grotzer, T.A.Teaching intelligence. American Psychologist 52(10), 1125-1133.,(1997)

Grotzer, T.A. The infusion approach. In S. Veenema, L. Hetland, & K. Chalfen,(Eds.), The Project Zero classroom: New approaches to thinking and understanding. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.,(1997)

Grotzer, T.A. Issues of instructional technique in math and science learning: Math/Science matters: A resource booklet on research in math and science learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on Schooling and Children/Exxon Education Foundation.,(1996)

Grotzer, T.A. Issues that impact equitable opportunities for all math and science learners: Math/Science matters: A resource booklet on research in math and science learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on Schooling and Children/Exxon Education Foundation.,(1996)

Grotzer, T.A. Cognitive issues that affect math and science learning: Math/Science matters: A resource booklet on research in math and science learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on Schooling and Children/ Exxon Education Foundation.,(1996)

Grotzer, T. (Spring). Restructuring around broader interpretations of intelligence: Spotlight series. MA/AIP Newsletter, 15(2) Massachusetts Association for the Advancement of Individual Potential.,(1992)

Commons, M.L., Armon, C., Kohlberg, L., Richards, F.A., Grotzer, T.A. & Sinnott, J.D. (Eds.). Adult development: Vol. 2: Models and methods in the study of adolescent and adult thought. New York: Praeger.,(1990)

Commons, M.L. & Grotzer, T.A. The relationship between Piagetian and Kohlbergian stage: An examination of the "necessary but not sufficient relationship." In M. L Commons, C. Armon, L. Kohlberg, F.A. Richards, T.A. Grotzer, & J.D. Sinnott (Eds.). Adult development: Vol. 2: Models and methods in the study of adolescent and adult thought (pp 205-231) New York: Praeger.,(1990)


Federation of American Scientists,(2011-)

American Association for Educational Research,(1998-)

National Association for Research in Science Teaching,(1998-)

News Stories

Campaign Banner

Learn to Change the World

The Campaign for Harvard Graduate School of Education enables HGSE to fulfill its vision of changing the world through education by expanding opportunity and improving outcomes.

Learn More