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.
Posted: Monday, April 14th, 2014
The Educators Evaluating the Quality of Instructional Products (EQuIP) Rubric for Lessons & Units: Science was released April 11, 2014. The Rubric provides criteria by which to measure the alignment and overall quality of lessons and units with respect to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The purpose of the Rubric is to (1) provide constructive criterion-based feedback to developers; (2) review existing instructional materials to determine what revisions are needed; and (3) identify exemplars/models for teachers’ use within and across states.
This document was developed in response to the recognition among educators that while curriculum and instruction will need to shift with the adoption of the NGSS, there is currently a lack of high-quality, NGSS-aligned materials. The power of the rubric is in the feedback it provides curriculum developers and in the productive conversations educators can have while evaluating materials. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, April 14th, 2014
by Jessica Sawko
On Thursday, April 10, 2014 CDE Staff, friends, and colleagues of CSTA member Phil Lafontaine gathered to celebrate his incredible career as a science educator and state employee of the California Department of Education, and to wish him an enjoyable retirement. There were many CSTA members in attendance to celebrate Phil and his contributions to education, and science education in particular. Phil was presented with several retirement gifts, including a customized San Francisco Giants jersey, and a Senate Resolution honoring his career and service. Learn More…
Posted: Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
Updated April 8, 2014
K-12 Alliance/WestEd, California Science Project, California Science Teachers Association, Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee, and the California Department of Education Presents: Next Generation Science Standards State Rollout Symposium #1.
Join science leaders at the first of a series of statewide professional learning symposia exploring the philosophy, design, and initial implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Learn More…
What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate: Evaluating Negotiation in an Elementary Science Classroom
Posted: Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
by Mason Kuhn
Engaging students in negotiation with their peers is considered a central motivation for recent national policy recommendations (National Research Council, 2011) and has been a focus of much scholarship in science education (e.g. Bergland and Reiser, 2009 & Hand, 2008). In the Next Generation Science Standards under the heading “Science and Engineering Practices,” the term “Engaging in Argument From Evidence” appears in almost every standard. However, most literature on negotiation focuses on theory, where little focuses on the topic of negotiation as related to science teaching and learning. Learn More…
Posted: Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014
by Laura Henriques
Updated April 8, 2014
This month’s issue of CCS focuses on biology and chemistry. Articles in this issue highlight some of the challenges around teaching these topics as we move towards Common Core and NGSS implementation. Jeanine Wulfenstein points out that the ideas are often abstract and difficult for students to grasp. These topics include a large number of vocabulary words that can get in the way of understanding, especially for English learners and students with special needs. Barbara Woods points out how discrepant events can be used to motivate and engage students by including the wow factor. Both articles provide us with teaching strategies that engage and support students while incorporating aspects of NGSS and Common Core.
I do not think any of us could teach chemistry (or other abstract topics) without using models (one of the NGSS science and engineering practices). A discrepant event or surprising moment causes us to ask questions (another of the science and engineering practices). These questions are followed by investigations, tentative explanations and more investigations as students and teachers try to make sense of natural phenomena (even more science and engineering practices!). This approach puts the student-developed models to the test. Adjustments need to be made and the model gets refined. As they explain relationships, cause and effect, and try to make sense of the science they are seeing, they are meeting Common Core standards and science standards. Learn More…