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Exploring the laboratory landscape: Computer simulations

Posted by Melissa on April 7, 2009

Continuing my exploration of curricular labs, I’m interested in considering the inclusion of computer simulations and computer modeling activities in lab. For improving conceptual understanding or exploring new concepts not covered in class, having students explore computer simulations or build computer models can be valuable. In particular, computers can help students visualize and control things at the scale of the very small, the very large, or the very fast. Matter and Interactions VPython programs or the PhET simulations can enhance student understanding and be integrated effectively into labs.

Nevertheless, I’m hesitant to make computer simulations the primary focus of lab. Where possible, I prefer combining simulations and/or modeling with hands-on activities. Integrating hands-on work with computer simulations gives students a better perspective on the interplay between theory and experiment. Students can build a model for a system, and then compare their model with an actual physical system that they measure. One of my concerns with favoring computer simulations at the expense of hands-on experiments is that much of the skill building aspect of lab (trouble shooting, data collection and analysis techniques, dealing with uncertainty and error analysis, designing and evaluating experimental set-ups) can be lost if the lab is entirely computer based.

While some lab skills can only be learned from experience, the PER group at Colorado found interesting results when they studied student performance in labs that focused on circuits. They compared performance, both in terms of conceptual understanding and hands-on effectiveness, of students in a traditional labs and students who first explored a computer simulation and then turned to hands-on activities. The students who used simulations first had a better conceptual understanding, and they were faster at building a real circuit, than the students who had been doing hands-on circuit activities for the entire time. Clearly, in certain settings, simulations can be powerful pedagogical tools.

Two other aspects of computer simulations/modeling are worth mentioning. On the up side, the equipment budget is small for labs that are primarily computer-based, which is a benefit when resources are tight. On the down side, if students are working in groups, it is much easier for one person to dominate if all of the work takes place in front of the computer screen, either coding or running simulations.

Is there an ideal mix of hands-on and computer-based lab activities?

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