Speaking Up About Simulation

The importance of bringing learners to places where they normally wouldn’t be.

GUEST COLUMN | by Len Scrogan

Simulation [sim-yuh-ley-shuh n] – An interactive experience that imitates, models, or replicates more complex phenomena.

credit-speak-up-simulations-reportFor nearly twenty-five years, I have been teaching with simulation. In fact, I made an early career out of it, having designed more than five commercial simulations and employed dozens more in my teaching. That was why I was delighted to see a recent report highlight the importance of simulation in learning contexts.

Published late June, the annual Speak Up survey, From Print to Pixel: The Role of Videos, Games, Animations and Simulations within K-12 Education, provides some real insight into the world of teaching and learning with technology (Speak Up is an initiative of Project Tomorrow®, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the empowerment of student voices in education.) The Speak Up Project surveys K-12 students, parents, and educators annually about technology for teaching and learning. This most recent survey polled 415,686 K-12 students, 38,613 teachers and librarians, 4,536 administrators, 40,218 parents and 6,623 community members representing over 7,600 public and private schools and 2,600 districts around the world. Represented schools from came from urban (25 percent), suburban (40 percent), and rural (35 percent) settings. According to Project Tomorrow®, “This survey represents the largest collection of authentic, unfiltered stakeholder voices on digital learning.” You can see why. And the truth is: educators of all stripes regularly use the Speak Up data to inform their programs and practices.

The use of educational simulation in the classroom offers schools a palpable return on investment.

Now back to simulation. Simulations allow learners be in places they normally cannot be, allow learners to change variables and thus explore the simulated environment, or take learners on a ‘discovery’ journey with a concrete end in mind. Simulations can also provide a safe harbor for experiments or experiences that would otherwise be extremely dangerous or difficult to conduct. This latest Speak Up report recognizes the emergence of pixel based digital tools, specifically, videos, games, animations and simulations, as legitimate vehicles for learning. “The pervasiveness of these engaging and interactive forms of information transmission [such as simulation] …cannot be underestimated,” the report states. There’s no surprise here.

According to the Speak Up report, over 80 percent of principals surveyed indicated that digital content (including simulations) “increased student engagement in school and learning”; and over 60 percent of those surveyed felt that this content “increased the relevancy and quality of instructional materials.”

So how does simulation work? Why is it so effective? Let’s take time to hang our hat for a moment on one clarifying example: a technology drawing consistent crowds at educational conferences for the last four years is the zSpace STEM Lab. zSpace is a Silicon Valley company offering what I call “a near-holographic hardware platform,” one which really turned heads at the recent ISTE 2016 edtech conference in Denver. The sweet sauce for this platform is its effective use of simulations. zSpace is an effective learning platform (currently used in 400+ school districts) because it offers more than a thousand interactive virtual reality models and simulations, along with an entire range of learning advantages, uniquely available through educational simulation:

Rich visualization. A fourth-grade teacher from the St. Francis Schools (MN), Holli Hillman, clarifies: “the visualization [of simulations] is often so rich that it provides an experience unlike anything one can offer through lecture or even hands-on; of course, the teacher can still provide elaboration, clarification, and guide discussion…”

Imitation or modeling. Simulations can replicate complex phenomena or processes. Abstract concepts can be understood in the mind’s eye, in ways that are easier to understand for learners.

Painless repetition. Simulations permit frequent watching, pausing, scrolling, replaying – repeating as needed. And we know that repetition encourages mastery and comprehension.

What ifs. Simulations often allow learners to change variables, to conduct experiments, to see “what if…” Exploration, experimentation, investigation, and inquiry are made truly possible.

Noble failure. In the 2016 National Educational Technology Plan, the authors highlight the noble failure features built into zSpace’s simulations. One zSpace simulation, for example, allows students constructing a motor or building a battery to make mistakes and retry, learning throughout the process. The iterative learning processes behind simulation—viewing, understanding, hypothesizing, trying, testing, discussing, questioning, tweaking, fixing, and then trying again – that’s the stuff of learning.

Simulations are not only powerful visual learning tools—they offer considerable classroom and cost efficiency, as well. Simulations save time: both instructional time and preparation time. In the Plainview-Old Bethpage School District in New York, Jordan Pekor, an AP Physics teacher, explains: “You can get a lot more done in your 42-minute period. Setting up these labs would be impossible in these kinds of timeframes, but you can walk into my zSpace lab and have things saved for the students and all ready to go.” Simulations can also enable teachers to conduct learning experiences that might otherwise be dangerous or risky. And combining simulation with more expensive hands-on experiences can lower the quantity and cost of consumables used in schools. There’s no question: the use of educational simulation in the classroom offers schools a palpable return on investment.

Len Scrogan is a Digital Learning Architect at the University of Colorado in Denver. Write to: len.scrogan@future-talk.net

  • SimPop


    Simulations are changing the way science is taught and learned. The science simulations, such as at PhET and SimPop have variety of options and settings for playing around with science. It makes understanding science concepts easier, and most kids enjoy tinkering with these simulations.

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