Notes from Webinar 11/12/2009
Afternoon session recording: http://stateofmaine.na4.acrobat.com/p70986026/
Evening session recording: http://stateofmaine.na4.acrobat.com/p21491543/
Models & Simulations in the Classroom
When I was working with Commodore in 1980, I read Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. (He’s the godfather of MLTI.) His ideas made me think deeply about the potential of computers, After all, he worked with Piaget. He taught folks how to program by first learning how to juggle, showing how simple steps can lead to complex outcomes. He also thought that learning should be “hard fun.” However, the idea that really made me think was the capacity of the computer to “concretize the abstract” – pushing the formal operations stage.
Alan Kay realized the potential as well in 1990:
“…[the computer] is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically … it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated.” (Sunrise Notes Number 2, June 1990, p.29)
Gary Stager restated this in his article “Cut the Cord – How Networks are Making Schools Stupid” for the December 2001 issue of District Administration:
“We have forgotten what computers do best. They make things, facilitate communication and support the social construction of knowledge. Computers mediate a conversation between the user and herself. They concretize the abstract. On the other hand, most school applications of the net are curriculum or teacher-centered – designed to transfer information to unsuspecting or unwilling children.”
So now we have the potential to reach out to the abstract and interact with it
What are the implications? By using models and simulations, students can watch changes over larger (or tinier) areas or time spans than they could have observed personally. Examples might include weather and geological phenomena, or atomic and molecular interactions. By using simulations based on accepted models, students can interact with them and observe the effects of their interactions. In many cases, simulations in science can be used to “do” labs that might be unsafe or unavailable, like dissections or chemistry labs.
Before we go any further we should probably investigate what models and simulations are, and how they differ from reality.
Definition from www.Businessdictionary.com.
“Graphical, mathematical (symbolic), physical, or verbal representation or simplified version of a concept, phenomenon, relationship, structure, system, or an aspect of the real world.”
If we boil the definition down we can see 3 important ideas: Representation, simplified, real world. In many ways, it is the simplification that can give meaning to a model, focusing on particular concepts or meaning.
But we are constantly making our own mental or conceptual models as we deal with the real world, and try to make sense of how it works. Because we are often limited in our observations or perceptions, we are prone to misconceptions. Allowing students to observe accurate models helps to correct those misconceptions
Good learning simulations are based on accepted models. They enable teachers to efficiently deal with complex information by immersing learners in realistic situations which allow them to “learn by doing”. These simulations provide valuable experiential learning by enabling users to practice the tasks they need to master and experience the results of their actions in a safe and supportive environment. They vary in their complexity and interactions and again depend on variables. Simulations do not give a perfect set of real world variables, because the real world is “fuzzy,” with random and chaotic factors.
Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical implications might be that the learning becomes student-centered and inquiry-based. They provide an opportunity to experience phenomena to replace their misconceptions, leading to an even stronger conceptual construct.
Oregon Trail flash – Online version, for those of you who remember the old Apple IIe simulation.Many schools have expanded the experience to have students roleplay, write diaries and build models of Conestoga Wagons.
Do I have a right? – A simulation where you are part of a law firm. Clients come in with scenarios that may or may not be covered by the Bill of Rights. You research and let them know whether they have a case.
Froguts –Virtual dissection of a frog. Schools can purchase site licenses.
Circuit Construction Kit – Use a toolkit to build circuits and test them. Good inquiry – part of a whole panoply of simulations from PhET.
Virtual Lab – Simulations of chemical reactions with selected substances.
SimCity – A classic complex simulation, SimCity was actually one of the requirements for National Board Certification for a few years, to help teachers understand another way to learn.
Since the model or simulation is a simplified representation of the real world, it is important to acknowledge the assumptions behind the model. The real world has many different variables, and designers pick which ones to include in their models.
NetLogo is an example of building models and simulations and playing with the variables. It is powerful, utilitarian, but teachers would have to design appropriate curriculum around a model or simulation. NetLogo includes an information tab to explain the “so what?” and “how” of the model, and a tab to look at the source code, too (to play with the underlying assumptions.)
Net Logo – Wolf Sheep Predation – With this model from the library, students can observe the classic predator/prey relationship, and then use sliders to “play” with variables like reproduction rates, energy gains, and amount of food.
With any instructional design, a teacher must decide whether the chosen simulation is being used for introduction, concept development, skill building, reinforcement or extension. Another factor to consider is time…as with any inquiry-based activity, a teacher must decide how deep a conceptual understanding must go. As always, the question rests on the goals of teaching and learning in your school and classroom.
EcoBeaker Maine Explorer was developed with his in mind. Here is the Maine DOE iTunesU site with podcasts from EcoScienceWorks:
EcoScienceWorks iTunes U site (Maine Department of Education):
Online Westward version of Oregon Trail
Old Oregon Trail flash version from Apple IIe
Lewis and Clark
Our Courts Game page
Simulations from PhET
TPACK and its relation to SAMR – presentation by Dr. Ruben Puentadura
Maine Department of Education iTunesU site – many resources
FreeCiv – a free “Civilization” clone
Simulation: “…techniques which aim to provide the student with a highly simplified reproduction of part of a real or imaginary world”.
van Ments, M., The Effective Use of Role Play: A Handbook for Teachers & Trainers. Revised ed. 1989, New York: Nichols Publishing. 186.
“…the aim is to recreate or represent in a limited time in the classroom particular situations which exist in the world outside…often using a computer program which incorporates the model on which the simulation is based.”
Reynolds, M. (1994) Groupwork in Education and Training Ideas in Practice, London: Kogan Page, pp18-19.
Simulations are “…one of the most effective ways to promote deep conceptual understanding of the real world”.
Peter Miller, Christina Smart, and Jacqui Nicol, Economics Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (UK)
“Placing a student in a simulated environment means they become involved. They view their experiences in a personal way…. From this they gain an attachment that can be shaped into a true learning experience.”
Rick Effland, Maricopa Community College
“Simulations can be a powerful education tool. The problem is that using simulations in education is different from “reality” and that simulations effect the user.”
Kevin Cox, Simulations in Education, Web Tools Newsletter, 30th July 1999