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Learning with Computer Simulations

Many geologic processes operate on time scales much longer than human lifetimes, or at very large or very small spatial scales, making the processes difficult to observe directly in a meaningful way. Computer simulations can provide students with the opportunity to observe, engage with, and explore these processes. In particular, students can enhance their understanding of geologic processes by changing input parameters for simulations and observing the effects on the output. These features make simulations powerful teaching and learning tools. However, effective use of simulations requires an understanding of their limitations, as well.

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Effective Simulations

Research (Tversky, 2002) shows that simulations need to adhere to two principles to be effective teaching/learning tools:

Research also shows that students engage with simulations more like scientists -- exploring for deep understanding -- when the simulation has carefully balanced affordances and constraints built into it (Podolefsky et al., 2010):

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Best Practices

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Pedagogical Strengths

Masses and Springs

There are many advantages to using simulations to teach and learn about geologic processes, including landform development:

As a result, effective use of simulations leads to improved learning outcomes (Jimoyiannis and Komis, 2001; Perkins et al., 2006), particularly when simulation outputs are visually realistic (Martinez et al., 2011).

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Pedagogical Challenges

There are some important challenges to be aware of in using simulations for learning.

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References and additional resources

Adams, W. K., A. Paulson, and C. E. Wieman, 2008. What levels of guidance elicit engaged exploration with interacive simulations: Proceedings of the 2007 Physics Education Research Conference (AIP Press, New York).

Edelson, Daniel, 2001. Learning-for-Use: A Framework for the Design of Technology-Supported Inquiry Activities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 38, n. 3, pp. 355-385.

Jimoyiannis, Athanassios and Vassilis Komis, 2001. Computer Simulations in Physics Teaching and Learning: A Case Study on Students' Understanding of Trajectory Motion. Computers & Education, v. 36, pp. 183-204.

Martinez, Guadalupe, Francisco L. Naranjo, Angel L. Perez, Maria Isabel Suero, and Pedro J. Pardo, 2011. Comparative study of the effectiveness of three learning environments: Hyper-realistic virtual simulations, traditional schematic simulations and traditional laboratory. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, v. 7, n. 2, 020111.

National Research Council, 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. National Academy Press Washington, D.C.

Pedagogy in Action. How to Teach with Simulations, Science Education Resource Center. Accessed 8 July, 2013. http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/simulations/how.html.

Perkins, Katherine, Wendy Adams, Michael Dubson, Noah Finklestein, Sam Reid, Carl Wieman, and Ron LeMaster, 2006. PhET: Interactive Simulations for Teaching and Learning Physics. The Physics Teacher, v. 44, pp. 18-23.

Piburn, Michael D., Stephen J. Reynolds, Debra E. Leedy, Carla M. McAuliffe, James P. Burk, and Julia K. Johnson, 2002. The Hidden Earth: Visualization of Geologic Features and their Subsurface Geometry. National Association for Research in Science Teaching annual meeting: New Orleans, LA.

Podolefsky, Noah S., Katherine K. Perkins, and Wendy K. Adams, 2010. Factors promoting engaged exploration with computer simulations. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, v. 6, n. 2, 020117.

Snir, Joseph, Carol Smith, and Lorraine Grosslight, 1993. Conceptually enhanced simulations: a computer tool for science teaching. Journal of Science Education and Technology, v. 2, n. 2, pp 373-388.

Tversky, Barbara, Julie Morrison, and Mireille Betrancourt, 2002. Animation: Can it Facilitate? International Journal of Human Computer Studies, v. 57, pp. 247-262.

Windschitl, Mark and Thomas Andre, 1998. Using computer simulations to enhance conceptual change: The roles of constructivist instruction and student epistemological beliefs. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 35, n. 2, pp. 145–160.

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