Computer simulations as good as observations

Students can learn some science concepts just as well from computer simulations as they do from direct observation, says a new research.

A study found that people who used computer simulations to learn about moon phases understood the concepts just as well – and in some cases better – than did those who learned from collecting data from viewing the moon.

The results suggest the use of computer simulations in science classes may be an effective and often less expensive and time-consuming way to teach some science concepts, said Kathy Cabe Trundle, associate professor of science education at Ohio State University (OSU), who led the study.

“These results give us confidence that computer simulations can be effective in the classroom,” Trundle said. “But now we need to do further study to see if it works in others areas of science.”

Trundle conducted the study with Randy Bell, associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia.

While there have been many studies examining computer use in the classroom, most have only examined whether students find computers easy to use and enjoy using them.

The few studies that have examined whether computers are effective for learning content have had mixed results, Trundle said.

This study is an improvement because it actually compares people who used a computer simulation with those who had more direct observations.

“Our expectation was that the computer simulation would be at least as effective as direct observation in teaching about moon phases,” Trundle said.

Participants in the study were 157 pre-service teachers — master’s degree students who are in training to become early childhood teachers.

This study examined how well these pre-service teachers understood moon phases before and after taking a 10-week science methods course that included a unit on moon phases, said an OSO release.

One class learned about moon phases using only a computer simulation, one group from nature alone and a third group from both a computer simulation and nature.

Their study appears online in Computers & Education and will be published in a future print edition.

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