Virtual education – the time and place for simulations and animations

At NCAIS Innovate this year NCAIS unveiled their Virtual School.  The backchannel chat on twitter raised a lot of questions and one that I found most interesting was what is the role of the virtual, mainly simulations and animations, in education.

For those who might be new to this blog, my first love was science.  I majored in biology and minored in chemistry at WFU.  While in high school at NCSSM, I completed two independent research projects during my senior year.  The lab was a big part of my life for many years.  I love the smell. I love the tools (cryostat, centrifuge, pipets, electrophoresis just to name a few favorites).  I love the way that the lab makes science real.  You can see things and prove things to yourself.  You can connect to the universe and its secrets.

In becoming a chemistry teacher, I’ve found labs can be a simultaneous blessing and curse.  Labs are essential to teach science.  Students need to get their hands dirty and see the science work.  They need to learn how to collect and analyze data.  Unfortunately, labs are time consuming.  Sometimes they fail and confuse students rather than clarify concepts.  It is difficult to get students to understand that results are results, not right or wrong.  They might be expected or unexpected and their might be a source of error that has skewed them, but they are what they are.

In a world of virtual education one can’t necessarily do labs.  Students working at home don’t necessarily have the resources to dissect a frog, perform an acid-base titration, or measure the frequencies of sounds.  So, where is the happy medium for the virtual in science?

I think that it is in supplements and in visualizations.   Below are a two examples that I feel represent the best of the use of the virtual in science education.

Titration Simulation

I used this simulation as a follow up to the hands-on titration lab my students did.  Titration is tricky, because it is so easy to overshoot the equivalence point and miss your chance to record the correct data.  Several groups struggled with this aspect of the experiment.  On the next day, we needed to demonstrate how to complete the calculations that go along with titration.  Using this simulation let us review how the experiment works and then complete the calculations.  For homework students used it again to try an experiment on their own and turned in their assignment by sending me a screenshot of their completed “experiment” and correct answer.   One of the best things about this simulation is that it provides a lot of choices to the students with regard to which acids, bases, and indicators they use.  It also lets them complete the calculations and check their answer.  The only thing that this simulation lacks is a review of how to do the calculations themselves if your initial answer is wrong.

Buffer Animation

One of the challenges of teaching chemistry is that students need to visualize things that are happening on the atomic level.  This particular animation was very helpful in helping my students understand how buffers function.  You can explain and draw the chemicals and their atoms on the board all day, but seeing the motion of this animation made a huge difference for my students.

As the NCAIS Virtual School and others like it develop, I’m sure much more will be learned about how students can use the virtual to understand scientific concepts.  In the meantime, I’ll be looking for more examples like these that can be used for preview, reinforcement and practice.


2 thoughts on “Virtual education – the time and place for simulations and animations

  1. Wow Jess! This was amazing. I didn’t know there was such a thing as virtual science like that. Do they have anything for elementary type science? This would be beneficial in using for them too!

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