Simulating learning environments

Rohini Karandikar and Bhagyashree Chemate

Students are stuck at home and may be bored of watching videos. Schools are closed, laboratories are locked, experiments are not happening for some months now. But learning? That doesn’t stop, thanks to a whole world of online simulations in science and mathematics. With technology advancing tremendously, it is now possible to simulate anything from microbial behaviour to astronomical phenomena. Several such simulating platforms like Algodoo, NetLogo, GeoGebra, etc., offer a wide scope for teachers as well as students to learn through the 5E – Inquiry-based instructional model – engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate.

As students move up to senior grades, several ideas and concepts in science and mathematics appear to be abstract. The learner is left to his/her own imagination while thinking about concepts like force, acceleration, gravity, climate change, epidemics, etc. It is next to impossible to experience these concepts, purely through imagination. Simulation platforms come to the rescue. There is no denying the fact that students learn better through models or simulations.

Fortunately, most of these simulations, across various subjects, are offered as open source software and are easily accessible to teachers and students alike. Students can not only simulate certain phenomena such as a car moving along a banked road, but can start from choosing the very design of the car from scratch! In this article, we present an overview of a few simulation platforms which provide an opportunity for students and teachers to immerse themselves in the concept, ask plenty of ‘what-if’ questions and alter parameters to obtain different outcomes. In other words, they can experience certain otherwise abstract concepts.

1. Algodoo
Algodoo is a platform provided by Algoryx® Simulation AB. It allows 2D simulations of events such as a car running on an elevated road, a pulley, pendulum, etc. These are objects which routinely appear in physics chapters to explain concepts such as acceleration, velocity, force, simple harmonic motion, etc., as well as while solving the related numerical questions. The platform allows students to create their own scene using a certain plane, creating a car with wheels (Figure 1), simulating the fall of objects, working of pulleys, etc. This way, students can easily visualize events presented in the physics chapters.

Figure 1. Source: Algodoo platform

‘Optics’ is another fascinating topic in physics. This requires different types of mirrors or a prism for understanding how a ray of light is reflected through concave, convex plane mirrors, or a prism. One problem in teaching optics effectively is the unavailability of these mirrors in schools. In lockdown situations, students may be unable to access these resources from school laboratories. Algodoo also presents an opportunity to learn optics in an engaging manner. Students can play around using different mirrors or a combination of mirrors and observe how light reflects through these (Figure 2). Similarly, teachers can give problems by adjusting certain parameters and asking students to observe phenomena and predict outcomes. Algodoo, being a free software is easily downloaded and supported by all operating systems.

Figure 2. Source: Algodoo platform

2. NetLogo
NetLogo is a platform that provides a modeling environment in various subjects covering mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, etc. It consists of an entire library of sample models in which students can explore several parameters of a particular system and observe the effects of that change. With every model, there is also a ‘Model info.’ which suggests interactive ways to change different parameters and learn through exploration. For example, in the model for climate change, students can observe how the sun’s rays, when they reach the earth, are converted into heat energy and how much of that heat energy is converted to infra-red radiation (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Source: NetLogo Climate Change Model, Tinker, R. and Wilensky, U. (2007).

Additionally, students can add, remove or modify parameters like CO2 or clouds and then observe what happens when the sun rays fall on earth. Here, teachers can take the phenomenon slightly further and ask questions like “What increases CO2 in the atmosphere? What increases the cloud cover? How does increased CO2 affect the biotic components of an ecosystem? Thus, such platforms encourage students to think ‘around’ a particular topic, rather than staying focused on one aspect. Students can extend the outcomes of the models to understand effects on humans, environment, climate, etc., and further think about possible solutions to the crises we are facing.

While all this sounds exciting, without having to actually go outdoors in times like these, we would like to sound a word of caution. In reality, systems may not necessarily behave exactly like the simulations run on these platforms. Moreover, several unprecedented events may make a model completely invalid. For instance, in a NetLogo model of epiDEM Basic, which simulates an epidemic, a model may predict how the spread of an infection may be contained by, say, physical distancing. However, the true outcomes may be completely different if there is a sudden violation of distancing rules by a large number of people. That also emphasizes the need to decide to what extent one can rely on models and to identify their limitations. It is equally important to understand that a model runs on the basis of certain ‘assumptions’, not all of which may hold true in real life.

These simulation platforms can spark the students’ imagination and curiosity to see the final outcomes of the hypothesis/assumptions and experiments. During our interaction with students on these platforms, we experienced that students try to simulate real life situations and solve real problems quite enthusiastically. They ask questions like ‘What will happen if I change this parameter?’ and seek their own answers by running the model. They also cross question the results they see after running the simulation to ensure that the parameters of a model interact with each other in a similar way as they work in real life.

These platforms also allow students to analyze and relate the outcome of these simulations with different plots and graphs. Challenging students becomes easier with these learning platforms. These challenges keep their interest intact while learning the scientific concepts or processes. This inquiry-based approach and continuous feedback while using the simulation helps students to develop their cognitive skills as well.

Overall, such simulations create an interactive learning space for students, without having them to arrange for apparatus or venture outside their homes. Working on these simulation platforms, students might learn to make and test hypotheses, develop critical thinking, problem-solving and prediction skills, which could go a long way into developing their scientific aptitude. This would be a motivational step for them to appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of science and also explore possible career options for a successful future.

References

  1. Tinker, R. and Wilensky, U. (2007). NetLogo Climate Change model. http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/models/ClimateChange. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
  2. Wilensky, U. (1999). NetLogo. http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

This article is based on our teaching experience at Curiosity Gym. Curiosity Gym is a STEM.org certified organization that provides school students an enriched experience in STEM, coding, design thinking and mentorships in science and technology.

Rohini Karandikar is a science educator and communicator working as curriculum and innovation manager, Curiosity Gym, Mumbai. She can be reached at [email protected].

Bhagyashree Chemate is a content developer and innovation instructor, Curiosity Gym, Mumbai. She can be reached at [email protected].

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