Physics in the virtual world

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 22, 2008

[[AAPT Session: Study of Computer Simulations — Interface design for engagement, learning and assessment, Wendy Adams]]

You know, when I first arrived at the University of Colorado, everyone was talking about these PhET Simulations that showed virtual versions of real physics phenomena, and I was really skeptical. Why simulate physics when you can go out and touch it, in real life? That’s much more engaging.

But, I have to say, I’m a convert. Teachers rave about them. Wendy Adams from our group gave a great talk about the simulations, how they’re effective, and some of the research on how they can best be used.

What the simulations offer over, say, an introductory lab using real equipment, is:

  • They can make the invisible (like electrons) visible
  • They’re interactive and animated, and quite realistically simulate real equipment
  • You can see the same situation several different ways (“multiple representations”), such as the real-world view, look inside it (to see the electrons), graph certain values (like the potential energy), see electric field meters, etc.
  • They don’t need to be as carefully guided as a real lab
  • They’re really fun and engaging.

There has been some encouraging research on the effectiveness on the simulations (see that work here). For example, one study gave half of an introductory class a simulation on circuits, and half used the regular introductory lab. Then, all students had to use the real lab equipment. They found that students who had used the simulation not only did better on the final exam, but they were also better able to use the real equipment!

They also found that:

  • With the real equipment, the TA can’t keep up with the multitude of questions and problems that crop up in lab. That’s not a problem with the simulations.
  • Students are nervous about getting electrocuted or damaging the equipment with the real lab, but with the simulation they can try a lot of different configurations and discuss it without that fear.
  • With the real equpment, students try to get a single answer from the lab setup, which is challenging because of all the problems with the equipment. If they don’t get the answer they expect, they suspect a problem with the equipment. In the simulation, when they see something different than they expect, then they think about the physics and their understanding, since they don’t suspect a problem with the simulation.

They also found that students did best with the simulations with minimal guidance. When given really direct questions like, “what does this slider do,” then they don’t go beyond the bounds of that question, they don’t tie the pieces together. If you don’t ask about a particular aspect of the simulation, then they totally miss it. But if you give no guidance, or very open questions like “how many ways can you light the lightbulb” then they fully explore the simulation until they understand it.

If you haven’t seen the simulations, then check them out! They’ve got ones for physics, math, and some others like geology.

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