April 2015 – Vol. 27 No. 8

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.









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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Update on 2015 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)

Posted: Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

by Jessica Sawko

For many months our members have been requesting clear information from the state department of education (CDE) regarding the purpose of the “science CSTs” that are being administered this year in grades 5, 8, and 10 and well as how the test scores from those assessments will be used for accountability purposes. The following was excerpted from a letter from the California Department of Education released on April 22:

California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress for Science

As educators from across the state begin or continue to implement the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS), questions have been raised regarding the role of the summative science assessments which students in grades five, eight, and ten will participate in during the spring of 2015.

During the transition to the new science standards and assessments, the federally required science assessments in grades five, eight, and ten (i.e., California Standards Tests, California Modified Assessments, and California Alternate Performance Assessment) will continue to be administered until an assessment aligned to the CA NGSS is developed and approved by the SBE. A new assessment is currently under development and scheduled to be operational in 2018–19.

Because the current science tests are not aligned with the new CA NGSS, the results will not be used in any accountability reports; however, the scores will be publicly available. As in prior years, AYP is based only on ELA and mathematics. Science is not included in AYP calculations.

As reported by CSTA previously, API will not be calculated for the 2014/2015 school year. More information about the suspension, what that means for reporting in 2015/2016, review this letter dated March 17, 2015 that was sent to administrators.

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.

Legislative Action Alert – ESEA/NCLB Reauthorization

Posted: Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

CSTA’s counterparts at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has been actively representing the voice of science teachers in Washington D.C. This morning they sent out this call to action:

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are currently working to reauthorize (rewrite) No Child Left Behind. Please contact your members of Congress immediately, and ask them to make STEM education a national priority. At the Legislative Action Center of the STEM Education Coalition website, you can send a letter to your elected representatives, asking them to

  • Maintain a strong focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
  • Continue the focus on math and science as required elements of any state’s accountability system.
  • Provide states with dedicated funding to support STEM-related activities and teacher training.

It is urgent that educators take a moment to write to your elected officials, and send this message to colleagues and networks in your school or district.

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.

Science Assessment & Accountability Update – FAQs Included

Posted: Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

by Jessica Sawko

On March 31, 2015 participants from the Science Assessment Stakeholder Meetings held in July 2014 were invited to participate in a follow up meeting to provide input on what a formative component, a Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Digital Center, should look like for California. This NGSS Digital Center could include formative assessment tools similar to that of the Smarter Balanced Digital Library for ELA and mathematics. This meeting will take place at the end of April 2015. This is very exciting news as it gives some insight to the direction the state may take with the future statewide assessment system to support the Next Generation Science Standards.  Learn More…

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Written by Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko is CSTA’s Executive Director.

Where Are the Women in STEM? What Can We Do to Support and Retain Them?

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Laura Henriques

Women are far less likely than men to earn pSTEM (physical Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) degrees or work in the field. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has gotten a bit of press lately. US News and World Reports had an article highlighting a Clinton Foundation Report showing women in developing countries have less access to cell phones (and therefore the internet) than men. This results in decreased access to health care, fewer job options, a lack of flexibility with work and childcare related issues, and a lowered sense of empowerment. That article linked to several other articles about the lack of diversity in STEM fields in the US, the leaky pipeline and more. Learn More…

Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president of CSTA.

Strategies for Assessing Student Understanding in the NGSS Classroom

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Sara Dozier

Like me, you are probably excited about the opportunities that the Next Generation Science Standards offer students and teachers. For the first time in 17 years, our science standards are asking us to engage our students in science learning that is engaging, meaningful and just plain fun. In addition to our excitement, though, there is also some apprehension. Learn More…

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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.