Research Proposal: Student Science Simulation Exploration

Research Proposal

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.

Literature Review

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:

  1. What science simulations do educators use?
  2. What limitations are there with simulation use?
  3. What are the positive aspects of simulation use?
  4. 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.











Cherry, G., Ioannidou, A., Rader, C., Brand, C., Repenning, A. (n.d.). Simulations for

Lifelong Learning. Department of Computer Science, University of Colorado, Boulder. Retrieved from


CITEd Research Center. (n.d.). Using Multimedia Tools to Help Students Learn Science.

Retrieved from


Duffy, T. & Cunningham, D. (1996). Constructivism: Implications for the Design and

Delivery of Instruction. Indiana University.


Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology.

New York: Simon & Schuster.


Jong, D. T. (1998) Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual

domains. (Review of Educational Research). SAGE Publications., 68, pp 179-202.


Gende, D. (2011, April 1). Science Simulations: A Virtual Learning Environment. [web log

post]. Retrieved from


Keller, H. (2009, June 2). Can Virtual Labs Replace Hands-On? Science Education.

Retrieved from


National Research Council of the National Academies. 2014. Learning Science Through

Computer Games and Simulations. 87-92. Retrieved from


Quellmalz, E. S., DeBarger, A. H., Haertell, G., Schank, P., Buckley, B. C., Gobert, J.,

Horwitz, P., and Ayala, C. (n.d.). Exploring the Role of Technology-Based Simulations in Science Assessment: The Calipers Project. Retrieved from


Scott, K. (2012, July 19). Wake Up Your Class With Simulation! Retrieved from


Simulation. 2014. In Retrieved October 16, 2014, from


Smeaton, D. (n.d.). Minecraft as a Teaching Tool- A Statistical Study of Teachers’

Experience Using Minecraft in the Classroom (Graduate Dissertation). Available from Retrieved from


University of Colorodo. (2013). Simulations. Retrieved from




11 thoughts on “Research Proposal: Student Science Simulation Exploration

  1. I agree that simulations can be a powerful tool for educators when used appropriately. Have you decided which simulation programs you would like to use? Have you considered creating a list of simulations that students can choose from or would that be too chaotic? (I think it would be too difficult to manage but I thought I’d throw it out there for consideration.) You will include that info in the method section of your paper. Also, have you considered creating a rubric that you and your students could use to evaluate the effectiveness of the simulation? This would also be part of your methods and could be included as an appendix at the end of your paper.


    • Thanks, I will get that piece in there. I was having a hard time writing it when I haven’t done the actual project yet. After reading other blogs, I will use future tense to fill in what I have left out. I was going to make a list and have the students participate in them, one at a time. This way they will be guided through the simulations.


  2. You have an interesting idea here. I will be curious to see what happens. I agree with the previous comment about creating a rubric. I think it would be a great way for your students to feel empowered and to get yourself some great information.


  3. I’m looking forward to your methodology and data analysis sections, Sunshine! I gave feedback on your lit review previously, so I will wait until your other parts are in place to comment :-). You might consider as a springboard for your project! Of course, if you wanted to do an evaluation of the experience from the point of view of your class, that would be okay too! But just a suggestion!



  4. Thank you for including my article in your references. Your proposal is well motivated and thoughtful.

    My article takes some pains to distinguish between simulations and prerecorded real experiments, a different sort of virtual lab. The former “fake it.” The latter use the real thing.

    There’s a subtlety here that many miss. When learning science, it’s really important that you have real-world data and also important that you take it yourself — not have it handed to you. The conversation below the article makes this distinction that may not have been as clearly made in the article as it should have. The reasons for caring have to do with the purposes of the science lab experience that should include learning the nature of science, developing scientific reasoning skills, and understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

    For the above reasons, simulations are not good substitutes for actual lab experiences. Strangely, if you read “America’s Lab Report,” actual lab experiences often are not good substitutes either. The ALR thesis is that we must improve those experiences, and they suggest how to do so. The prerecorded real experiment approach was created to overcome many of the problems cited by ALR. When combined carefully with wet lab experiences, the result is excellent.

    How should you use science simulations? The simple answer is rarely and appropriately. A science simulation truly is a visualization. It’s a way for students to see something that would otherwise be noticed by them or that is necessary to the understanding of a topic. Many students do fine without them, but some just don’t get it without help. Teachers can provide this help in one-on-one sessions, but their time is limited. Assigning a simulation can help that student get past a mental block. Videos can also do the same thing.

    Make no mistake. Running educational science simulations is not running a lab. The experiences are unrelated.

    Science simulations have a very serious problem. They misrepresent science. When giving a simulation assignment, make sure to clarify that this is an approximation of the real world. The results are too precise and too accurate. Interpretation is way easier. You have no connection to the data because it’s just handed to you. No matter how real looking, simulations are artificial constructs. The equations used to create them may not even come close to the real world for some parameter combinations.

    This last point is why scientists use simulations. Seem paradoxical? Not really. Scientists build models and then compare them to the real world. In this way, they find the limitations of the models and then can go back and refine them to extend to a greater range of conditions. They never expect perfect matching with experimental data. Rather, they seek to understand the underlying causes of phenomena. As a scientist, this is my viewpoint.

    The final three points of your article should be considered well.

    1. “[S]imulation tools are an application we can use throughout our entire lives.”
    I don’t see students graduating and then using science simulations on a regular basis. So, I’m not sure exactly what is meant by this.

    2. “[W]hen used appropriately simulations can benefit student engagement in learning.”
    The point here is contained in the word, “appropriately.” There is considerable discussion over this point. My views are toward one end of the spectrum.

    3. “[S]imulations allow for lab experiences that are faster, cleaner, safer, and allows for exploration when the equipment is unavailable or the environment is unattainable.”
    Because simulations are not lab experiences, this point misses the point. Prerecorded real experiments are real. When used with point-by-point data collection, they become true lab experiences (without the equipment manipulation). Because you have this alternative, there is no reason to use simulations for these purposes. They belong to the “textbook, lecture, video” and other passive learning modalities.

    One more thing. The second step of your process, designing and running actual experiments, will be the true learning part. The first step could readily be watching a really good video or even reading an article. It does not have to be a simulation.


    • Thanks, so much, for the feedback. I didn’t intend to make it seem like I want to replace actual lab time with simulations. I just think they would be beneficial to use with science experimentation. For my Ubd lesson check out my Prezi presentation: This study is one little section within this entire lesson. It is plugged in during the simulation section. With my 3 final points,
      1. Through my research, I have found a lot of professions do use simulations at some point in their careers. I would not expect them to use them in replacement of the real thing, just that they are used.
      2. I agree with you on the wording, I suppose this is all up for interpretation, just as your article may be difficult to distinguish simulations from “virtual labs.”
      3. I see where you are coming from here, but this is what my research has led me to conclude. I know that I am incapable of doing an extensive enough amount of research to come up with another in the time I have been allotted. Would this wording be a little more appropriate: Simulations can be used as an extension to real experimentation, that allows for exploration when equipment is unavailable or the environment is unattainable. Do you think that this would be a better approach?
      I greatly appreciate all of the feedback I am given, and await any other comments you are willing to offer.


      • 1. Broadly interpreted, your idea about using simulations is fairly accurate. Just look at the new Disney movie, Big Hero 6. (My review will appear on the Nov 7 release date at ETC-Journal.) Their new Hyperion scene renderer uses 55,000 CPU cores to calculate the paths of 10.5 billion light rays in each frame so that the light appears as lifelike as possible. Scientists constantly use simulations to approximate the real world and to test theories by calculating their implications. Engineers have been using computer simulations for design purposes essentially since computers were invented. I just didn’t see the possibility of using computer simulations in our lives as a strong motivation for including them in courses. That motivation exists for plenty of activities that you might add to a course but don’t.

        2. For me, this is a key point — how you employ science simulations in your courses. The first issue here is informing students that they are doing a simulation that will not be real. You should impress on them that this is an idealized representation of reality, sort of like the movie “Frozen” is. The second issue is that simulations have their greatest value as visualizations. The ability of students to choose parameters to visualize is their strength and a weakness because students can explore the equations being modeled (realizing that they are exploring mathematics rather than science) but may not choose those parameters well. For students who already get the concepts of a particular topic, the extra activity of simulation becomes superfluous. The third issue is that students, even after these warnings, will tend to believe that they are doing science. They are not, and what they see will show them a very distorted concept of what science really is. They can see science through the lens of simulations as trivial and dull. The data are so good that interpretation is a snap, while real science is hard work. Extending parameters can lead them into regions where reality and simulation are miles apart. They can draw incorrect conclusions about the real world. Finally, many simulations have had errors in their algorithms that result in inaccurate data. In the real world, inaccuracies are a result of the experiments (calibration, equipment failure, design mistakes, etc.) and not programmer error.

        3. This area relates to how simulations are used by scientists and how they should be used by educators. These do not have to be the same. Scientists using simulations are very sophisticated about their use, unlike students. Scientists understand the limitations of simulations and know exactly where their power lies. Students are naive about simulations and about science in general. It’s unlikely that students will be using simulations as scientists do.

        Having students do some simulations and then design experiments based on that experience might be a good exercise. Certainly, the second part is. The first part, in the old days, might have entailed a literature search or simply reading a well-chosen book. More recently, it might involve seeing a film or taking a field trip to stimulate ideas. The important part is doing something that will trigger the exploratory impulse and then going into the real world.

        Specifically, doing simulations and then creating experiments from that experience will work best if the experimental experience highlights the shortcomings of simulations, if students see that simulations do not mimic the real world in certain important ways. This insight can then lead to understanding how scientists do use them. If the experiments merely verify the simulations, then this important learning opportunity has been lost. I don’t suggest no benefit because designing and carrying out scientific experiments, especially if the results are uncertain, is valuable.

        Science is about constantly asking “Why?” and checking the answers against observable, repeatable results.

        I am not arguing against your proposal. I only suggest that you proceed carefully and with full understanding of all of the implications of what you propose. The results could be greater than you may have originally envisioned.


      • Thank you, again, for taking the time to respond to my work. I am extremely interested in simulations and understand their limitations. I do need to include that I will be talking with students about that as well. It is important that the students realize they are just simulations, which could possibly have errors in their programming. Connections to real life will hopefully help them with this understanding. I will look for your review on Nov. 7. Thanks again.


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