September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Thoughtful Use of Computer Simulations

Posted: Friday, May 5th, 2017

by Lisa Hegdahl

More teachers than ever before are making the transition to the CA NGSS and there are many resources available now to make that transition a smooth one. While we should embrace new ways of teaching our students, we should also be thoughtful consumers of the new information and technologies that come our way.

Computer simulations are a wonderful tool for facilitating CA NGSS instruction. Not only do they allow students to use 21st Century technology, but they also often allow students to explore scenarios that would not be possible in the traditional classroom. And, since the California Science Test (CAST) will be computer based, it makes sense that our students become comfortable with manipulating data with computerized platforms.

With that said, teachers should use computer based science simulations with prudence. In the early years of the CA NGSS adoption, I had the opportunity and honor to have an informal conversation with Helen Quinn. The conversation eventually turned to this very topic of utilizing computer simulations in the science classroom. While all for their practical uses, Dr. Quinn did express concerns that simulations are often too neat. Among others issues, the data that is produced often comes out too perfect (real world data is often messy) and there are limitations as to the variables that can be manipulated which can mislead students.

I recently expMiddle School Matter imageerienced just such a situation. While exploring the organization of sedimentary layers and what their organization can tell scientists about fossils, my students played the Layers of Time Fossil Game. While engaged with the game, students discovered that fossils will be found in consecutive sedimentary layers, much like columns, and these columns will not be broken. In other words, fossils will not appear in a layer, skip a layer, and then reappear in the next. Students used this understanding to reorganize fossil layers they had previously arranged in their science journals. A few days after experiencing the simulation, my students were writing a claim, evidence, reasoning paragraph about the order of a new set of sedimentary layers that contained fossils. The concepts developed from the game were to be used for the reasoning. During a conversation with a student, I realized that she thought fossils needed to literally appear in a “column”. She thought any fossils that weren’t perfectly, vertically aligned within the fossil record needed to be adjusted within the sedimentary layers. With further inquiry, I became aware that many students had this same perception. A class discussion ensued about the strength and weaknesses of the computer model after which we were able to move on.

I had a similar situation last year that was produced by a simulation where a virtual person pushes a cart on a track and then lets go. After the person let go, the cart moves across the track for an infinite amount of time at a constant speed. It definitely makes it easy for the students to gather data because the data freezes on the screen, but students do need to consider what will really happen over time to the speed of a cart on a real track on Earth.

Don’t misunderstand me. My students and I love computer simulations for the reasons previously stated, and I will continue to use them, even the ones I mention in this article. I am grateful to the many innovators out there who take the time to create the simulations – a feat way outside my skill set. And, as mentioned previously, their limitations have provided me and my students with the opportunity to discuss their benefits and drawbacks which ultimately leads to deeper understanding. However, I have learned that I need to look at them with a critical eye, watching for anything that has the potential to derail student understanding.

 

 

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Written by Lisa Hegdahl

Lisa Hegdahl

Lisa Hegdahl is an 8th-grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, CA and is Past-President of CSTA.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

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CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

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Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

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Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

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Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

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