New insights in science: The use of rich and engaging simulations for assessment and learning

Multiracial students working on laptops as teachers help them

Simulations are mathematical constructs that allow humans to study and manipulate systems that we otherwise could not. This may apply to systems that we cannot physically reach, like the interior of the Sun. It could be a system that is too complex to study in small pieces or that we cannot manipulate in the real world, like Earth’s atmosphere. Or it could be something too dangerous to play with, like a nuclear weapon. Finally, it could be something that is too expensive to manipulate frequently, for example, DNA.

There is, however, another purpose to simulations. That is to provide students with an authentic process in order to learn or assess learning. Simulations can help do what no multiple choice item can, that is allow students to develop their own experiments and observations in order to provide a response. Even further, with some effort, it is possible to develop simulations that are not merely assessment tools, but learning tools. Instead of providing hundreds of pieces of lab equipment (costing thousands of dollars), we can use the computers already available and allow students to run real experiments.

That’s something I’ve been working on for several years. I want to see students all over the world have the ability to do real science, even though they don’t have access to the lab equipment that it takes just for a simple experiment or investigation.

To that end, a team of us have come together to try and make this a reality. The goal of Insight Science is to create complex simulations prototypes that intend to accomplish two important goals.

First, we want the simulations to be easily modified by our science content experts. We believe we’ve identified ways in which we can create simulations in such a way that they can be more easily scaled and as a result, more readily available to students.

Second, the students’ interactions with the simulation can be recorded via activity-stream data and used to make inferences about performance. Instead of getting their final answers of how they interpret the results of a simulation, we can actually start to learn about the sophistication of their conceptual understandings. For example, what next steps did they take after analyzing some data? What does that say about their level of understanding? These are the types of questions that allow us to better assess where students are in their learning progress.

Simulations are not just assessment, but also learning tools. In fact, we’d prefer to design many of our formative assessment activities as having this dual purpose to maximize efficiency and reduce the amount of “stop and test” for students. I have designed some variation in our pilot simulations so that every trial is not exactly the same. Students will have the opportunity to use the simulation exactly like a laboratory. All the tools are available and can be used just as someone would with physical equipment. Data can be collected and recorded, just like in a physical workspace. Except, the only thing needed is a computer.

We have developed two simulations for our upcoming pilots. The first is a classic physics of motion system using a toy vehicle. The second is a more ambitious, population dynamics and food web simulation. The population dynamics/food web simulation is something I’m very proud of. The sim allows the students to create a food web and study how the organisms in that food web interact over time (by watching the population change). The equations that govern the organism populations are based on recent work by Texas A&M University ecology researchers (my colleague Amy asked me to insert “Whoop” here).

The sim is set up to allow the students to construct whatever simulation they want, but it will not allow some actions. For example, mice will never eat bobcats and plants will never eat deer. An elementary version of the sim, may just have two or three organisms in a food chain. While the high school version could simulate an entire ecosystem. Future iterations of the simulation may allow for decomposers and other, more complex, food web systems.

Here, in the US, we enjoy a high level of education. The majority of our schools have funds for decent science labs and technology. There are, even in the US, schools that don’t have that luxury though. Science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) education is critically important to individuals and the global community.

I want to see every child explore science and enjoy it. Not because I love science (I do), but because I think many kids love science. And given an opportunity, I think that more children will enjoy science (and their own education) more if they have the ability to explore it, not just with canned products that give a known result every time. In my classes, I would have student derive equations like F=ma from their experiments, not just tell them what it was. This process gives students an understanding of science (and math and the real world) that is more powerful by having discovered it themselves.

As technology becomes more available, I want all learners to have access to have these types of opportunities.

Through the use of realistic simulations launched on technology, such as phones and tables that are more and more common, that allow students to explore real world interactions, everyone can experience this learning for themselves.