Simulations: Bringing the Natural World to the Classroom


Objectives for Unit 2:

By the end of this unit, participants will be able to:

  • Understand what a simulation is by discriminating between images, animations and simulations
  • Understand how simulations can be used to support inquiry learning

What is a Simulation?


Inquiry-based learning requires students to seek answers to questions they have. This engagement helps students build a "personal knowledge base" (Van Joolingen, Jong, and Dimitrakopoulout, 2006). This can be easy for many everyday experiences, but what if students have questions about our natural world? How can one experiment and find meaning in many abstract and difficult to conceptualize phenomena?

A simulation is an imitation of a real object or process. In education and particularly science, simulations are used as models to gain an understanding or insight into the processes or functions of some natural phenomena. Simulations can be interactive physical models or computer-based. The key is that simulations allow students to actively engage in with the model. This interaction with the model provides a learner-centered environment mimicking what many people do in real life. Real world skills such as such as critical thinking and practical problem solving are emphasized when using simulations. Unlike a simple diagram or even animations or visualizations which are passive, simulations allow students to understand complex processes by direct manipulation where ideas can be tried and evaluated, and consequences can be analyzed and discussed for deeper understanding. In addition, students are able to solve problems easier with information that is presented externally as simulations do. The simulation experience provides a concrete experience for students about a real-world phenomena which can serve as the foundation from which new learning can be built.

Today, there is a shift in education towards getting teachers to have their students engage in authentic activities. Computers play a vital role and easily allow students to engage in inquiry activities that are student centered rather than teacher directed. Computer simulations can make abstract, difficult to conceptualize phenomena tangible, and easily studied from a classroom. Computers can also provide a multitude of tools used to visualize and analyze data when testing hypotheses. The real power of a simulation is the ability to test and analyze processes with immediate feedback.

For more information about simulations, click here then use your browser's "Back" button to return here.

An Example Simulation

To help you better understand what a simulation really is, lets think for a moment about stars and how they evolve. Typically in a directed-learning environment, students would be instructed that stars start out as huge clouds of gas that contract under gravity. Eventually, they become hot and dense enough for fusion of hydrogen into helium in their cores which produces an outward push of energy enough to counteract the inward pull of gravity. at this point, it is said to be a main sequence star. How it evolves and it's eventual fate is determined by how much mass it has when it first formed. Often, diagrams will outline the various stages a star will go through such as those below:

Hrdiagram.jpg Gstarevolution.jpg

These visuals do a satisfactory job of showing what the different stages are, but it does little to give students an understanding of how this process really occurs.

The following animation shows the same stages an average star evolves through as in the above diagrams, but here, the two diagrams are combined into a single animation that shows more effectively how stars evolve. Please click the link below and try the animation for yourself. When you are done, please return to this page.

Animation of a Star's Evolution

Again, this animation does a satisfactory job of showing what the different stages are, bit it does little to give students an understanding of the processes involved and how long it really takes.

Simulations allow students to actively engage in learning - students can ask questions and try out different ideas and observe what happens when they alter the properties of some natural phenomena. From this interaction, a deeper understanding can be achieved. Follow the link below to experience a star's evolution from birth to death. Before you begin the simulation, read the instructions on what the variables are and how to use the simulation. Try "building" stars of various masses and see what happens. When you are done experimenting with the simulation, return here.

Todo.jpgActivity #1: An example of a Simulation - Build Your Own Star

What did you think? Think about what you have just experienced and express a few thoughts to share in the discussion area.

Is This a Simulation?

The key to knowing if something is a simulation is that simulations allow students to acquire important and relevant information about a real world phenomenon in a manner that allows one to manipulate the variables to test hypotheses or see how a system works.

Todo.jpgActivity #2: Which of the Following is a Simulation?

1. The Greenhouse Effect

2. H-R Diagram

3. Horizon View

4. Moon Phase

5. Archery

6. Sea Ice

7. Solar System

- Follow the links above and determine whether each is an image, animation, or simulation. Share your answers with the other participants in the discussion area.

- Discuss with the other participants which of the above examples would allow a student to: test a hypothesis; manipulate variables; analyze a variety of outcomes.

An Example of a Natural Phenomena That Is Better Studied Using a Simulation

Todo.jpgActivity #3: Group Activity

Working in groups of three, think about the content area you teach in, and determine one example of a natural object, event, or process that would allow students to gain a deeper understanding by using a simulation. For your example, explain how the simulation will give students the ability to test hypotheses, manipulate variables, and analyze results to see how that natural system works. Share your example in the discussion area for other groups to read. Individually, respond to at least two other groups posting thinking about how the simulation could be used in the classroom.

What Have You Learned?

Todo.jpgActivity #4: Reflection Activity

Think about what you have learned from the information in this unit and the activities you have experienced and post in the discussion area a paragraph or two of how or why simulations could be used in place of natural phenomena as authentic experiences to promote inquiry.

Simulations for Inquiry Course home page