My case study proposal is to introduce a small group of three 5th grade students to several science-based Phet interactive simulations. (University of Colorado, 2013) Monitoring their experiences, observing their reactions and the conversations that arise from the experiences help to assess their engagement and interaction while working with the assigned simulation. Having a one-on-one discussion with each student to ascertain the knowledge gained from each site as they finish exploring informs me on their understanding and ability to relay that information. Rating each simulation as to whether or not they enjoyed it, the educational benefit they feel they received from it, and whether they feel they would return to that site in the future is completed post exploration of the simulation. When completed in working with several simulations, the students devise their own experiment that they decide to conduct in a classroom laboratory setting. They come up with a project proposal for their experiment, listing items needed and the process they will be going through to conduct this experiment. The desired outcome is to ascertain which science based simulations benefit students when conducting research for a personal experiment.
Project extension: If there is time, students may create a Prezi presentation to present what they did, and their findings.
Simulations have been around for quite a while, but within recent years there has been a major push to integrate these simulations into the classroom. “(Simulations are) something that is made to look, feel, or behave like something else especially so that it can be studied or used to train people (Simulation, 2014).” There are a huge amount of simulations on the world-wide-web. I have narrowed my focus to science-based technology simulations. This literature review considers whether the use of science simulations benefit students in a classroom environment by responding to the following questions:
- What science simulations do educators use?
- What limitations are there with simulation use?
- What are the positive aspects of simulation use?
- Is there a best practice for using simulations in the classroom?
Understanding the limitations and benefits of simulation use in the classroom will lead us to a plan that we can facilitate which will best serve the needs of our students in science education.
What science simulations do educators use?
There are so many simulations out there we have a difficult time keeping up with what is available. Since it continues to grow, daily, we have to be diligent in exploring sites frequently to find ones that pertain to the content we are instructing. When choosing a program (according to CITEd) it is important to select something that fits with your curriculum and state frameworks. It is also important to keep the age and academic ranges of your students in mind when making a selection. Some of the collaborative learning tools may be very text heavy and resemble Internet bulletin boards or chat rooms. (CITEd Research, n.d.)
Smeaton (n.d.) looked into the use of Minecraft, a creative block simulation that allows students to collect materials and build things with them in a virtual world. He conducted interview with educators to discover their personal opinions on whether this simulation was beneficial to use with their students. “Most respondents indicated that Minecraft had been very successful as a teaching tool and that learners showed high levels of motivation and participation – which suggests improved learning” (p. 5). This simulation can be very educational if guided well by the instructor.
Scott (2012) is one of many educators who post suggested simulations on their blogs. These sites help to lessen the research time teachers put into finding the appropriate simulations. Then there are multiple universities that create sites that are user friendly to anyone who is looking for a simulation in a specific subject area. The University of Colorado (2013) has created a site called Phet Interactive Simulations. This site has organized simulations by subjects and subcategories. Though this just touches the surface, these have been the main sites I have found to come up in multiple resources during this review. This causes me to believe that these sites, and sites like them, tend to be more frequently used by educators.
What limitations are there with simulation use?
When using simulations in the classroom we have to be aware of the limitations these programs have. Keller (2009) contemplated the replacement of lab work in the classroom with simulations. He discovered that there is a happy medium. Though simulations allow for a person to alter different scenarios it does not take into account other factors that may become an issue. If you were to do a simulation on the computer in order to illustrate something that may be more difficult to replicate, like launching a projectile, then you would have an easier time understanding the outcome from different approaches (such as weight, angle, and force). But when you actually do the experiment in real life there are other factors that can alter the outcome. This is something that the students have to experience hands-on.
Jong (1998) was comparing a structured and unstructured simulation environment. The unstructured group was given no guidance, while the structured group received specific assignments, prompting, questioning, and were instructed to take notes (p. 31). As a result, there was no difference found between groups. “An explanation why simulation based learning does not improve learning results can be found in the intrinsic problems that learners may have with discovery learning” (8). Discovery learning is an inquiry-based technique for instructing students in an area of study. If students don’t have a solid understanding of how to ask good questions as they are exploring and learning, they will struggle in science inquiry.
What are the positive aspects of simulation use?
There are multiple positive effects of using simulations with students in a classroom environment.
In the case of students, a simulation is most often a tool to grasp ideas which are already “known” to the professional community but which are difficult to understand. For adults, a simulation can be a tool to extend the current knowledge within a field. Both students and adults, however, follow a similar process when working with simulations – stating a hypothesis, devising and running simulation experiments, and analyzing the results. (Cherry, G., et al., n.d.)
If we would like the simulations we use to be of high quality and cover the above areas, then we need to do our research and find appropriate sites that can facilitate a strong learning environment. Students understanding the adults also engage in simulations for multiple professional purpose will demonstrate the importance of their use.
Then there are projects that are created to test simulations. The Calipers project documented the feasibility, usability, and technical quality of the new simulation-based assessments and they found that:
Simulations are well suited to investigations of interactions among multiple variables in models of complex systems (e.g. ecosystems, weather systems, wave interactions) and to experiments with dynamic interactions exploring spatial and causal relationships. Technology allows students to manipulate an array of variables, observe the impact, and try again. The technology can provide immediate feedback. Importantly, simulations also can make available realistic problem scenarios that are difficult or impossible to create in typical classrooms. (Quellmalz, E. S., et al., n.d.)
Students wouldn’t be able to witness, or visually experiment certain things because they are unsafe, they don’t have the supplies or there are factors that they cannot control. With simulations they are able to control the situation and do experiments that would have been impossible to do in real life. “The students can make sense of the concepts by seeing the connection between the representations and how one variable affects another” (Gende, D., 2011).
Gende also goes into listing other benefits of using simulations with students. She believes that students learn and retain more through inquiry, investigation and application as they control the situation. This creates active engagement and building on understanding. It provides representation in several ways, working situations with collaboration groups, the simulation of lab work, and the drills and connections that help students work towards mastery. (2011) “(Science) simulations and games can increase students’ motivation for science learning, deepen their understanding of important science concepts, improve their science process skills, and advance other important learning goals” (National Research. 2014).
Instructing students on how to use the scientific process is a long and tedious task, with the help of simulations educators can help to share the load with interactive computer time. “Collaborative learning tools also help students to confront scientific misconceptions and refine theories” (CITEd Research, n.d.). The more they are exposed to these ideas the more prepared they will be for the actual science work they will be conducting in a laboratory setting. These positive aspects seem to outweigh the limitations. But in actuality, simulations need assistance to reach this point.
Is there a best practice for using simulations in the classroom?
While research on the efficacy of multimedia tools is somewhat limited, the research conducted to date suggests that multimedia tools may be most effective for science and mathematics learning. These tools can be effective additions to regular science instruction and can help students visualize unseen phenomena, develop scientific language, improve understanding of the scientific process and contribute to the development of scientific thinking. “Although games offer an opportunity to enhance students’ learning of complex science principles, research on how to effectively assess their learning and use that information in game environments to impact the learning process is still in its infancy” (National Research. 2014). Since there are so many simulations out there we need to educate ourselves and discover which ones best address the curriculum. More research will continue to be done to better assess simulations used in the classroom.
“To facilitate learning, educational simulations rely heavily on scaffolding,” (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996) immediate instruction, and comments. With this in mind, we can’t just use simulations or just do lab instruction. “Virtual labs and simulations should not substitute for laboratory experience, but may be used to supplement and extend such experience” (Gende, D., 2011). If we are to use simulations to the best of their ability we have to guide the students while they are exploring these apps. They need the immediate feedback, and the inquiry support to be able to get the most out of the time they spend on the computer. Without that focused guidance, simulations have not been proven necessarily in making any sort of difference in the scientific development of a child. If we follow simulations with real life lab experience, then there becomes a stronger connection in the learning that has just taken place.
Simulations need to be looked at as tools, not the whole program. “We, on the other hand, want to focus on the technology as a tool for the learner rather than as a tool for the teacher” (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996. p. 18). “Rather, the teacher is there to support the students in developing their critical thinking skills, self-directed learning skills, and content knowledge in relation to the problem” (22). The students have no trouble getting onto the simulation, exploring and playing. Whether they pull any sort of understanding, or make any scientific connections is up to the instructor. As educators it is our job to be right there to give immediate feedback and to ask questions to gather information for us and to allow the child to inquire. “Being able to blend the two is the most beneficial” (Keller, 2009). This is why I decided to have students not only explore different simulations, but to create their own hands-on experiment in the classroom.
While there is a lot of research to support simulations in the classroom, much of this support comes with stipulations. Teacher guidance and inquiry while exploring the simulation is essential for growth in student understanding. Immediate feedback and constant discussion help to guide science inquiry, and assist students in better understanding the scientific fundamentals required for preparing for lab work. By following up with an actual lab experiment, students are able to make the connections from the stimulations to real-world applications.
The literature reviewed in this study delineated three overall themes. First, simulation tools are an application we can use throughout our entire lives. Second, when used appropriately simulations can benefit student engagement in learning. Third, simulations allow for lab experiences that are faster, cleaner, safer, and allows for exploration when the equipment is unavailable or the environment is unattainable.
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