If future historians were to write a book about the most important contributions of technology to improving science education, it would be hard for them to skip computer modeling and simulation.
Much of our intelligence as humans originates from our ability to run mental simulations or thought experiments in our mind to decide whether it would be a good idea to do something or not to do something. We are able to do this because we have already acquired some basic ideas or mental models that can be applied to new situations. But how do we get those ideas in the first place? Sometimes we learn from our experiences. Sometimes we learn from listening to someone. Now, we can learn from computer simulation, which was carefully programmed by someone who knows the subject matter well and is typically expressed by a computer through interactive visualization based on some sort of calculation. In the cases when the subject matter is entirely alien to students such as atoms and molecules, computer simulation is perhaps the most effective form of instruction. Given the importance of mental simulation in scientific reasoning, there is no doubt that computer simulation, bearing some similarity with mental simulation, should have great potential in fostering learning.
Although enough ink has been spilled on this topic and many thoughts have existed in various forms for decades, I found the book "Simulation and Learning: A Model-Centered Approach" by Dr. Franco Landriscina, an experimental psychologist in Italy, is a masterpiece that I must have on my desk and chew over from time to time. What Dr. Landriscina has accomplished in a book less than 250 pages is amazingly deep and wide. He starts with fundamental questions in cognition and learning that are related to simulation-based instruction. He then gradually builds a solid theoretical foundation for understanding why computer simulation can help people learn and think by grounding cognition in the interplay between mental simulation (internal) and computer simulation (external). This intimate coupling of internalization and externalization leads to some insights as for how the effectiveness of computer simulation as an instructional tool can be maximized in various cases. For example, Landriscina's two illustrations, embedded in this blog post, represent how two ways of using simulations in learning, which I coined as "Interactive Science" and "Constructive Science," differ in terms of the relationships among the foundational components in cognition and simulation.
This book is not only useful to researchers. Developers should benefit from reading it, too. Developers tend to create educational tools and materials based on the learning goals set by some education standards, with less consideration on how complex learning actually happens through interaction and cognition in reality. This succinct book should provide a comprehensive, insightful, and intriguing guide for those developers who would like to understand more deeply about simulation-based learning in order to create more effective educational simulations.
The Molecular Workbench has been downloaded over 800,000 times, making it Concord Consortium’s most popular single piece of software. We’re heading to a million and documenting in video both our history and our vision for the future.
Learn from Charles Xie, Senior Scientist and creator of the Molecular Workbench, about the computational engines that accurately simulate atomic motions, quantum waves, and atomic-scale interactions based on fundamental equations and laws in physics.
Amy Pallant, who researched student use of Molecular Workbench, describes the phone calls she made to students months after they’d used the software—and how impressed she was with their memory of the science of atoms and molecules.
Dan Damelin, Technology and Curriculum Developer, recalls his time as a classroom teacher and his frustration with trying to describe atoms and molecules to his students with words and
pictures. He wanted more—and found it in Molecular Workbench!
Dan sums up the goal for Molecular Workbench: “It’s going to be just a given that this is a regular tool that will just be part of learning science.” We hope so.
We’re closing in on a million downloads and looking toward the next million.
The Molecular Workbench team has a unique opportunity—take our wonderful software and increase access to it. But we know that this is no “Field of Dreams” task. If we build it, will they come?
We’re using The Lean Startup as a guide to optimize our software for the Web. It’s encouraging us to experiment to see which ideas are brilliant and which are crazy and get feedback from users early. We’re thinking about how not to assume we know what people want, but instead go and find out, and be prepared to shift our ideas. In short: Test. Iterate. Repeat.
So we held our first focus group with several Rhode Island teachers who have been loyal users of Molecular Workbench. Our goal was to get feedback on ways to make our new browser-based MW more valuable to them. We asked them to evaluate new designs (we invite you to take our survey, too). We also asked about tone and length of activities. And the teachers described ways they’d like to select and integrate MW models and activities into their classrooms.
Two major themes emerged: flexibility and student accountability. This confirmed what we knew about the classroom: teachers have limited time, a wide range of learners, a diversity of classes, and pressures around high-stakes tests. We’re now working on prototyping ways to incorporate teacher feedback into our Web-based MW models and activities. We’ll share our progress on our website.
And, of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
As we make our award-winning Molecular Workbench software more accessible and widely available, we’re documenting our story at the same time. Google’s grant to the Concord Consortium funds the conversion of MW from Java to HTML5 so it will run in modern Web browsers. This will reduce barriers for using the next generation MW in schools. Students will be able to access the software from a Web page on a school computer, iPad, or smartphone, giving them anywhere, anytime access to powerful science learning opportunities.
We’re creating videos to share our conversion story. We’ll describe Molecular Workbench, our technical development process, and the benefits of HTML5. We’ve teamed up with the excellent staff of Good Life Productions to produce these videos.
In the first video, Concord Consortium’s Director of Technology Stephen Bannasch describes the power of the modern Web browser to bring science to life. Enjoy.