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.


Changing the Subject

For nine years, I’ve been teaching computer courses to high school girls.  Next year, I start Chemisty.  Yes, the both start with C and involve “science,” but don’t otherwise have much in common. I have a science and technology background, but until the coming year, all of my classroom teaching has been in technology courses.

Computer Science makes it easy to use real world examples, problem solving, experimentation, hands on, and paired/group learning.  You learn to write good code by writing code – sometimes writing bad code.  You write, compile, and test.  Then you do fix the problems and compile and test again.  It’s fun to teach and students learn the language along with planning, problem solving, and patience.

Today, in a conversation about how computer science allows you to teach with 21st century skills in a very natural way, my inner thoughts turned to how I would be able to continue this mode of teaching in a new subject area.  What are my goals?

  1. To provide and welcome opportunities for my students to discover information on their own and share it with each other.
  2. To find and share real world illustrations of the concepts we learn.
  3. To find ways to assess my students that go beyond traditional assessments.

In the meantime, I’d welcome ideas from those who have taught this subject longer than I have.

iHeart my iPhone

Thanks to all who Tweeted about the iPhone/iTouch session today at NECC.  If you haven’t already, visit, a wonderful wiki from the session.

I’ve had my iPhone for a year and it is the only handheld device I’ve every used successfully.  It syncs beautifully with Exchange 2007, bringing me my mail, calendars and contacts.  My one complaint with this integration is that Active Sync with the iPhone doesn’t sync the notes or tasks, which I use extensively.  I don’t have a solution for the notes but I’m currently using toodle-do as a middleware to sync my tasks.  It’s clunky, but it works.

Some of my personal and productivity apps include

  • Tweetie for Twitter access
  • Facebook
  • WRAL News – my local new channel’s iPhone app
  • PhoneFlix to manage my Netflix queue
  • Free Ping to ping my network

Until recently, I hadn’t done much to introduce the iPhone into my classroom.  However, after nine years of teaching computer science, I may be adding chemistry to my list of courses in the upcoming school year.  This prompted me to look for apps that might be applicable to my new subject area.  Recent downloads:

  • The Chemical Touch Lite – an amazing (free!) periodic table.  This is a wonderful app.  It allows you to view the Mass, Density, Melting Point, Boiling Point, Radius, and Electronegativity of each element.  With a simple touch, you can move from the table to the wikipedia article on that element.  Waiting in the doctor’s waiting room last week, I learned all about Technetium using this resource.  Unsurprisingly, I chose it because it was tech-net-ium.
  • Stoichiometry simulator by T.J. Fletcher.  This is a beautifully designed app. The Lab Manuals are clearly written and the simulator is easy to use.  I look forward to seeing how this will apply in class.
  • Calorimetry Simulator by T.J. Fletcher.  Also nicely done with an attractive design and a clearly written help file that explains calorimetry.  The program includes simulations for several known metals and then three unknowns.  Also looking forward to using this simulator.

I’m also looking into whether the programming of Apps would be a good introductory programming class for our school.  I believe that it would be attractive to our students.  Information gleaned from the iPhone developer site indicates that you must be programming on a Mac.  As a dedicated Tablet PC school, this would be a deal-breaker.  My Apple rep is checking, so I’m hoping that there is a solution.

So why do iHeart my iPhone?  It’s easy.  Exchange integration is easy.  Getting apps is easy.  The interface is easy.  Are there things that I’d love to see added (Flash integration in Safari, copy/paste, the aforementioned notes and tasks), but overall, it is fabulous!