Dec 03 2007

Simulation Literacy

Gains in technology are making these tools more valuable to educators, and easier to use.

Imagine you’re watching a simulation of an underwater environment teeming with fish, plants and other life. By changing a variable in the software— increasing pollution, for example — you affect the food supply, the viability of the fish and everything else in that once-balanced ecology. What’s more, the consequences of that altered variable are instantly translated onto the screen.

If you think simulation makes for a nifty education tool now, things look even brighter for the future, reports the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a research organization based in Palo Alto, Calif. The data that goes into the creation of simulations is more qualitative and plentiful than ever before, says Marina Gorbis, IFTF’s executive director. “Once you uncover and understand the patterns in data, you can create more sophisticated simulations,” she says.

Experts have raved about the impact of simulation tools on education for years.

“Simulations give students a unique opportunity to explore complex systems without having the real system present, and to understand the relationships among the system’s different elements,” says Elliot Soloway, a professor of engineering and education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “From a cognitive standpoint, if a student actually sees the dynamics — rather than just something static — it’s a huge leap.”

It’s all about context.

What distinguishes simulations is something known as contextualized learning. “You can read about something in a textbook, but kids can’t make the leap from those pages into the real world,” says Soloway. “Simulations add concreteness to learning, and we know absolutely that children in elementary and middle schools must have concrete examples for understanding.” He cites the various “lemonade stand” simulations created over the years — which teach, even to very young students, the principles of running a business. “Kids love it,” says Soloway. “And every kid ‘gets’ it.” The question is: Should school districts get more simulations into the classroom?

Deciding to Buy

Initial enthusiasm for bringing simulations for all grade levels into your school may wane considerably once budgetary discussions emerge. Soloway says simulations are indeed must-haves, but not all educational administrators feel the same way. “School administrators will say, ‘We don't have the money,’ but what they're really saying is that it isn't important,” he says. “School administrators usually find the money to buy that which they want.” Often, he adds, they do simple cost-benefit analysis. “They’re asking, ‘Do I spend $5 or $20, or however much the cost of the software per computer, times the number of computers I have, or do I get kids to read or do basic math?’”

Ronald W. Tarr advises administrators charged with buying decisions to be clear on certain points. “You need to know the outcome you want,” says the research faculty member at the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He notes that some simulations are superbly geared toward teaching technical subjects and developing skills, the mastery of which is the whole point of the class. Enrichment, such as simulations, he says, may not necessarily result in a student learning the topic.

Tarr also says it’s important to know your audience. Very young students need more hands-on help from teachers when working with simulations. Tarr also emphasizes a practical approach — if your school doesn’t have Internet connectivity, enough computers or even enough textbooks, then simulations are hardly a priority. He underscores that simulations are often no substitute for the content-giving that schools consider their mission. “You’re mainly tested on dates and facts, not on the understanding that simulations can provide,” he says.

The Evidence

Along with budgetary obstacles, there’s another issue. Studies on the efficacy of simulations have been inconclusive. “There’s very little empirical evidence that says simulation leads to student achievement,” says Soloway, noting that the federal government likes products that come with scientifically based research — controlled studies showing that what you want to buy with federal money actually works. “This is a very difficult debate,” he says. But, he adds, there’s nothing to stop a PTA gung-ho on bringing simulations into the classroom from spearheading events to bring in the money needed for these purchases. Gorbis suggests a selective approach by considering simulations to see what’s not visible to the naked eye, such as activity within molecules, or simulations that give a systemic view of a large system, such as the inner structure and workings of a building. However, notes Tarr, “Simulations are not a magic solution.” Nor are they a replacement for the physical world, says Gorbis. But as ways to make learning fun and comprehensible, simulations are hard to beat.

Simulation Benchmarks

In 1984, Will Wright couldn’t find a publisher for a computer idea he called SimCity, so he created it himself for use on the Commodore 64. Three years later, Wright and Jeff Braun co-created a company called Maxis that, in 1989, published SimCity — a game that let you create, build, populate and even govern your dream city. The following year, Maxis released SimEarth.

The programs were the stuff of legend. Word of mouth created a feeding frenzy, and educators jumped in. SimFarm — a program that allowed you to design, grow and manage a farm amid changing economic conditions and eco-disasters — came along in 1993. That year also saw the release of SimCity 2000, which sold 300,000 copies in four months. In 1999, SimCity 3000 debuted.