UNIT 3 - A Real Experience

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Objectives for Unit 3:

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.


Support Required for Effective Inquiry Using Simulations

As with all new technology, certain skills are required by both teachers and students to effectively use simulations (particularly computer simulations) in the classroom. Teachers must be familiar with the technology used to be able to provide support for students who may not have the prior experience required to successfully use a simulation activity. Research has suggested that how effective using visually-based tools such as simulations are is dependent upon how they are used. Simulations are most effective when used as a means to discover underlying principles and process at work in the natural world.


Simulations, as a tool for education, require a certain amount of background scaffolding and a motivating context. The processes that require support are transformative - they are controlled by higher level processes such as planning, monitoring, and evaluation. Collaboration is a natural aspect of inquiry and support can be provided from fellow students in addition to or instead of cognitive supports. Some of the difficulties that students often have associated with inquiry and the use of simulations to support inquiry include:


  • having difficulty generating hypotheses
  • designing poor experiments
  • difficulty interpreting data
  • difficulty with self monitoring and integrating new knowledge


Support can include the prompting of prior knowledge and using meaningful experiences where students can apply their own ideas or a variety of ideas in discovering the nature of phenomena. The teacher as well as other students can provide support in discovering meaning when using simulations. Sometimes using simple models and building towards more complex representations can aid student management of learning. Questions can be posed to guide learners through the discovery process. Providing a sequence of steps to follow can help with regulating the structure of the discovery process.


An Authentic Experience Using a Simulation: Planetary Orbits

To help discover some of the benefits and possible problems students may have when using a simulation, lets use a simulation ourselves and find out!

One of the basic concepts students must understand in the Earth Sciences is the concept of the nature of planetary orbits. The nature of planetary orbits was first discovered in the 17th Century by Johannes Kepler who is best known for his Three Laws of Planetary Motion. To help you understand these fundamental laws of nature, lets examine a simulation of planet orbits around the Sun.


Todo.jpgActivity #1: The Nature of Planetary Orbits Simulation

Click on the links below and experiment/explore the nature of planetary orbits by manipulating the variables given in the simulation. use your browser's "Back" button to return to this page.


Inner Solar System Viewer

Outer Solar System Viewer


In the Simulations for Inquiry Discussion Area, post a short response to:


1) what you may have noticed about the planet orbits, and


2) What may be some of the questions students may have when given a simulation like this to discover the nature about.


Difficulties and Scaffolds

Some of you may have found the above activity obvious and easy to do. Others may have been left wondering exactly what they were supposed to do or determine about the planet orbits.


The effective use of a simulation requires the ability for students to discover a deep understanding of a natural phenomena through the manipulation and analysis of a model (in this case the simulation). One of the biggest difficulties students will have is what questions they need to ask. Many students do not know how to hypothesize or ask relevant questions. In this case, framing a set of questions for your students to explore can help to guide their understanding. In addition, working in collaboration with others, students support each other in learning about the nature of phenomena.


Lets try the above activity again, but this time, when using the simulation, think about the following questions:


Todo.jpgActivity #2: The Nature of Planetary Orbits Simulation

Click on the links below and experiment/explore the nature of planetary orbits by manipulating the variables given in the simulation. use your browser's "Back" button to return to this page.


Inner Solar System Viewer

Outer Solar System Viewer


1. When using the simulations above, think about the what the shape of the planet orbits are, the speed planets travel in their orbits and how long it takes the planets to orbit the Sun. In the Simulations for Inquiry Discussion Area, post a short response to 1) what you may have noticed about the planet orbits given these questions posed.


2. Working in groups of two or three, share your observations and determine three characteristics of planetary motion. Share these conclusions with the rest of the participant in the Simulations for Inquiry Discussion Area. Discuss how working in small groups can/did help in determining the nature of a natural phenomenon


3. Using the conclusions you have drawn, analyze and compare your conclusions to Kepler's Three Laws of Planetary Motion (just note the introduction to the three laws). Discuss how you felt the simulation might have aided your understanding of a natural phenomena.


What Have You Learned?

Todo.jpgActivity #3: Reflection Activity

Think about what you have learned from the information in this unit and the activities you have experienced and post in the Simulations for Inquiry Discussion Area a paragraph or two of some of the difficulties students may have when using simulations, what types of learning supports can be used to facilitate effective inquiry, and how you may design inquiry-based problems to facilitate effective inquiry using simulations.


List of Resources


Simulations for Inquiry Course home page