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Simulations for Inquiry Course

Project Proposal - The Use of Simulations for Inquiry

Statement of Intent

The use of simulations for inquiry provides participants with learner-centered activities where knowledge is constructed upon prior knowledge:

  • Participants explore answers to their own questions
  • Activities require participants to make decisions whose consequences can be explored
  • Simulations provide genuine concrete and real experiences for participants
  • Simulations can replace the natural world to make available a wide variety of phenomena to be explored
  • Simulation activities provide students with the tools to support inquiry

Needs Assessment

Instructional Problem

Students have traditionally been taught through lectures, notes, and textbooks where a great deal of information is often obtained, but not often understood, retained, or able to be transferred. In order for students to understand concepts and transfer this knowledge to other contexts, students must be able to build upon what they already know. Inquiry learning, a process where students are engaged in activities that involve making observations, asking critical questions, experimenting, analyzing, and drawing conclusions about the world, allows students to make their own decision and to explore answers to their own questions to build meaning. Often however, natural phenomena are difficult or impossible to explore in classroom settings. Computer simulations can realistically represent natural phenomena and allow students to manipulate and explore these phenomena and gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the phenomena.

Nature of What is to be Learned

Teachers will learn how computer simulations can be used to facilitate student inquiry and provide concrete experiences that are “real” to build further knowledge and understanding.

About the Learners

The learners for this course will be primarily science content teachers who currently do not use simulations for inquiry and desire to engage students with meaningful or relevant experiences to develop critical thinking skills. These teachers traditionally use lab exercises “out of context”. Elementary teachers may also find the use of simulations as a means for inquiry with young students as well.

Instructional Context

The classroom will serve as the primary setting. Modern technology must be available and will include relatively fast operating computers with internet access for both teacher and student use, and a projector to display and model computer simulations. Teacher should be knowledgeable and competent in computer use. Students will need to have basic computer skills to navigate and actively explore virtual environments.

Instructional Content (in progress)

  • What is inquiry and why is inquiry important in student learning
  • What are simulations, and why use simulations in place of the natural world
  • How do simulations promote inquiry – practical experiences

Teachers will participate in activities where they experience first-hand how simulations can be used in the classroom and promote inquiry. Discussion and reflection of the activities will provide the participants opportunities to build upon each others experiences and draw conclusions upon the activities.

Initial Goals

  • Provide science teachers with a means to give students authentic experiences
  • Provide students opportunities to develop critical thinking skills

Performance Objectives

Participants will be able to understand what inquiry is and why it is important:

  • Given background information on inquiry-based learning, participants will discriminate between inquiry-based learning and directed learning by citing examples in their own teaching for each and justifying their responses.

Participants will be able to understand what simulations are and why simulations are used for student inquiry:

  • Given images, animations, and, manipulative computer visual content, participants will identify which are simulations, generate examples of natural phenomena that could be better studied using simulations, and state in writing why simulation is used to promote inquiry as an authentic experience.

Participants will demonstrate how the use of simulations promotes inquiry:

  • Given a computer simulation of solar system objects moving in their orbits around the Sun, participants will generate questions about the nature of the orbits to other students and state conclusions drawn after reflection.
  • Given Kepler’s 3 Laws of Planetary Motion, participants will classify their conclusions about orbital relationships according to Kepler’s Laws of Motion.

Task Analysis

Course Purpose

This mini-course is to give high school science teachers a better understanding of how to create an inquiry based classroom environment through the use of simulations which can replace the natural world as authentic experiences. It is my hope that these teachers will appreciate the benefits of simulations in promoting critical thinking skills in their students.

Prerequisite Skills

Essential Prerequisites:

  • Participants will need a basic understanding of what inquiry-based learning is
  • Learners will need to have computer access and basic knowledge of computer use
  • Learners will need to have a basic knowledge of science or science background:
    • Knowledge of what an ellipse is and the concept of eccentricity (e)
    • Knowledge of the concept of an astronomical unit (AU)
  • Some form of teaching or classroom experience

Supportive Prerequisites:

  • An open mind
  • A willingness to learn and apply new knowledge
  • Ability to draw upon previous experiences

Organization and Content Sequence

Unit 1 – A Quick Review of Inquiry-Based Learning

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

  • Understand what inquiry is
  • What characteristic inquiry-based environments have
  • Discriminate between inquiry and directed learning
  • How to use inquiry methods in teaching


  • Reflection – How could a teacher recreate a real problem about the natural world without actually going outside the classroom to experience it?

Unit 2 – Simulations: Bringing the Natural World to the Classroom

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


  • Simulation ID exercise
  • Group activity – generate examples of natural phenomena that are better studied using simulations – justify responses
  • Reflection/discussion – How/why simulations could be used in place of natural phenomena as authentic experiences that promote inquiry

Unit 3 – A Real Experience

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

  • Understand possible difficulties students may have using simulation-based inquiry
  • Provide learning support through collaboration to facilitate effective inquiry using simulations
  • Reflect upon what they have learned in this mini-course and state how they may design inquiry-based problems to facilitate effective inquiry using simulations


  • Solar System orbits simulation - an authentic experience
  • Discussion – Nature of the relationship between each planet and its movement around the Sun. Focus the discussion around the problems students might encounter when using a simulation and what types of support were used or could be used to facilitate inquiry learning while authentically experiencing the following:
    • Group activity – draw conclusions based on class discussion about planetary motion
    • Classifying conclusions into Kepler’s 3 Laws of Planetary Motion
  • Conclusion: Reflection – participants will reflect upon what they have learned in this mini-course and state how they may apply the use of simulations to their own classrooms to facilitate effective inquiry

Sources and Tools


Barab, S. and Dede, C. (2007). Games and Immersive Participatory simulations for science education: an emerging type of curricula. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(1), 1-3.

Cimer, A. (2007). Effective teaching in science: a review of literature. Turkish Science Education, 4(1), 20-44.

De Jong, T. and van Joolingen, W. (1998). Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual domains. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 179-201.

Foti, S. and Ring, G. (2008). Using a simulation-based learning environment to enhance learning and instruction in a middle school science classroom. Journal of Computers and Science Teaching, 27(1), 103-120.

Li, S., Law, N., and Lui, K. (2006). Cognitive perturbation through dynamic modeling: a pedagogical approach to conceptual change in science. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 22, 405-422.

Libarkin, J. and Brick, C. (2002). Research methodologies in science education: visualization and the geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 50(4), 449-455.

Lohner, S., Van Joolingen, W., and Savelbergh, E. (2003). The effects of external representation on constructing computer models of complex phenomena. Instructional Science, 31, 395-418.

Nelson, B. and Ketelhut, D. (2007). Scientific inquiry in educational multi-user virtual environments. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 265-283.

Reiber, L. (1996). Seriously considering play: designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(2), 43-58.

Reid, D., Zhang, J*., & Chen, Q. (2003). Supporting scientific discovery learning in computer simulations. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 19(1), 9-20. [1]

Simons, K. and Clark, D. (2004). Supporting inquiry in science classrooms with the web. Computers in the Schools, 21(3/4), 23-36.

Van Joolingen, W., de Jong, T., and Dimitrakopoulout, A. (2007). Issues in computer supported inquiry learning in science. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23, 11-119.

Zhang, J., Chen , Q., Sun, Y., & Reid, D. J. (2004). A triple scheme of learning support design for scientific discovery learning based on computer simulation: Experimental research. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20 (4), 269-282. [2]


Inner Solar System Viewer

Outer Solar System Viewer

Build Your own Star - Virtual Experiment