July 2015 – Vol. 27 No. 11

Virtual Courseware: Web-Based Simulations for Promoting Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning

Posted: Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

by Paul Narguizian and Robert Desharnais

There is wide acceptance that inquiry-based curriculum programs have positive effects on cognitive achievement, process skills, and attitudes towards science. Science instructors seek engaging, effective, and inquiry-based activities that are convenient to implement in their classrooms. While the web provides a vast resource of declarative information (some of it multimedia), there are few places on the web where instructors can obtain effective inquiry-based tools for teaching science. The Virtual Courseware Project fulfills this need with interactive, web-based simulation activities that emphasize the methods of science for both life and earth science topics.

With Virtual Courseware, students learn by doing: making observations, proposing hypotheses, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data generated by the software, and synthesizing and communicating results. The activities include an online assessment quiz that consists of randomized interactive questions. The students’ answers are graded automatically and stored in a database server, and a printable certificate of completion is issued for each student. The instructor can access student and class results, allowing them to quickly gauge how well the key concepts were understood. The simulations are designed to enhance traditional curricula and provide a supplement to experimental laboratory and field work.

As an example, the Drosophila activity allows students to simulate laboratory experiments where they breed fruit flies carrying visible mutations and analyze the offspring to determine the laws governing genetic inheritance. The paradigm for this activity is a “virtual lab bench” where students can order fly stocks carrying mutations, mate flies in an incubator, and view and count flies under a microscope. Experimental data are entered into a “lab bench computer” which is used for analysis. Data tables and images can be exported into a “laboratory notebook” and results from the notebook can be imported to create an on-line scientific report. This activity promotes inquiry-based learning and the scientific method because it allows students to propose hypotheses, design their own experiments, and collect and analyze data to test these hypotheses in an engaging virtual environment that mimics a laboratory setting.

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Virtual Courseware Offerings

The development of Virtual Courseware began in 1995 with the release of the genetics application Virtual FlyLab. With the support of a series of NSF awards, several additional applications were developed in the areas of biology and earth science. These have been organized into four application suites:

  • Virtual Courseware for Inquiry-Based Science Education consists of Drosophila, described above, and two other applications to be released soon: Natural Selection, which allows students investigate the evolution of traits by performing laboratory experiments involving water fleas, and Relative Dating, where students can pose and test hypotheses regarding the order of the geological events represented in a geological cross section.
  • Virtual Courseware for Earth and Environmental Sciences includes two groups of activities. (1) Earthquake consists of a java-based simulation on determining the travel times of seismic waves and a second simulation on locating the epicenter and Richter magnitude of an earthquake. Also available is a version called Terremoto that is completely in Spanish. (2) Global Warming consists of two simulations and several interactive tutorials. Energy Balance allows students to explore the factors that determine the temperature on the Earth’s surface, and Future Climate Change allows students to experimentally manipulate simulations of Earth’s climate. Seven tutorials accompany these activities: Albedo, Carbon Cycle, Greenhouse Gases, Greenhouse Effects, Hydological Cycle, Milankovitch Cycles, and Seasons on Earth.
  • Geology Labs On-Line has five interactive tutorials: (1) Virtual Earthquake for earthquake epicenter and magnitude determination, (2) Virtual Dating—Isochron for determining the ages of rock and minerals, (3) Virtual Dating—Radiocarbon for determining the ages of fossils and archeological artifacts, (4) Virtual River—Discharge for determining the flow and other properties of rivers, and (5) Virtual River—Flooding for determining the frequency of flooding.
  • Biology Labs On-Line is a collection of 12 web-based simulations for biology education: CardioLab, DemographyLab, EnzymeLab, EvolutionLab, FlyLab, HemoglobinLab, LeafLab, MitochondriaLab, PedigreeLab, PopEcoLab, PopGenLab, and TranslationLab. It is a commercial web site hosted by the academic publisher Benjamin Cummings and jointly owned by the CSU Center for Distributed Learning and the publisher. A site-license for any of the simulations costs $133 per year.

Pre/In-service Teacher Training for Noyce Scholars

The Chancellor’s Office of the California State University was awarded a grant from the NSF NSDL program titled “Building Locally, Linking Globally: Networking Micro-Communities of Noyce Scholars for Advancing Innovations and Improvement in Mathematics and Science Education.” The Virtual Courseware Project partnered with the Noyce-NSDL team to train Noyce Scholars in the use of Virtual Courseware. Several in-person and on-line workshops were held and training materials were developed which became part of the Noyce Teaching Commons. Workshops were presented at annual western regional meetings of the Noyce Scholars and the Virtual Courseware Project hosted a one day series of hands-on workshops for over 60 Noyce Scholars in the Southwest.

The partnership has been a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. The Noyce-NSDL leadership team added another high quality instructional tool into its portfolio of on-line resources. The Virtual Courseware Project disseminated its materials to science majors who are committed to teach in high need schools throughout the nation. Most importantly, in these times of tight budgets and burgeoning technology, Noyce Scholars have been introduced to free and effective on-line simulations which allow them to implement inquiry-based learning in their classrooms in a fun and tech-savvy way.

This is the second in a series of articles that highlight features of the Noyce-NSDL project.

The Virtual Courseware Project was funded by several grants from the National Science Foundation: DUE 94552428, DUE 9752603, DUE 9980719, ESI 0352529, and DUE 0735011.

Paul Narguizian is an associate professor of biology at California State University with expertise in science education.

Robert Desharnais is a professor of professor of biology at California State University, the director of the Virtual Courseware Project, and a member of CSTA.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

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

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S.F. Bay Area Science Events for July 2015

Posted: Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

by Minda Berbeco

Free Entry Days at:

Bay Area Discovery Museum, First Wednesday of the month
UC Botanical Gardens, First Wednesday and Thursday of the month
Oakland Museum of California, First Sunday of the month
CuriOdyssey, July 8th

Super-cool Science Parties and Lectures:

Nerd Nite East Bay, Last Monday of the month
Nerd Nite San Francisco, Third Wednesday of the month
Night Life, Thursdays, 6-10 pm, at the California Academy of Sciences
After Dark, First Thursday of the month, 6-10 pm, at the Exploratorium
Café Inquiry, Firth Thursday of the month, 6pm, at Café Borrone, Menlo Park

Learn More…

Written by Minda Berbeco

Minda Berbeco

Minda Berbeco is the Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education and is CSTA’s Region 2 Director.

Better Together – California Teachers to Convene Across the State on July 31st

Posted: Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

by Mei Louie

Across the state, California teachers are driving innovation in the classroom and shaping our students’ futures. To support their critical work, a coalition of California colleges and universities is inviting teachers to unite on Friday, July 31, 2015 to build powerful networks, share successful classroom practices and access effective resources to implement state standards.

Thirty-three California campuses are opening their spaces and inviting an estimate of 20,000 teachers to participate in a one-day event. Teachers will have a unique opportunity to hear about proven best practices from nationally renowned speakers, fellow teachers, and leaders in education. The free convening will be led by teachers, for teachers, and will help towards building a powerful lasting network of peers. This is a chance for teachers to come together to collaborate in hope of creating a better future for California students. Teachers will walk away with concrete tools to immediately use in their classrooms to implement the California Standards including the Common Core. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

The Practice of Teaching Science

Posted: Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

by Lisa Hegdahl

About 10 years ago, at an after school meeting, our presenter posed the question, “Why did you become a science teacher?” Each of my colleagues gave answers such as, “I wanted to affect the future”, “I loved working with children”, and “I wanted to stay young”. As it came closer for my turn to share, I was in a panic. The truth was, I became a science teacher as a way to get out of a dead end job that had long hours and paid next to nothing.

I have often thought about that day and about the noble motives for entering our profession expressed by my colleagues. Perhaps only those of us who truly have some kind of selfless calling should endeavor to be science teachers.   My reflections led me, however, to the conclusion that it is not important how people answer the question, “Why did you become a science teacher?” but how they answer the question, “Why do you continue teaching science?” I continue teaching science because I love it. Learn More…

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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 President for CSTA.

Making the Leap from the Classroom to TOSA

Posted: Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

by Kirsten Franklin

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Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

What Does It Take to Get Kids Outdoors?

Posted: Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

by Lori Merritt

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Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.