The Computational Science Education Reference Desk

Article excerpt

Technology is often used in the classroom to deliver science content, but rarely to do science. One area with little penetration into the educational curriculum is computational science--the art of using computers to perform the mathematics behind modern science. Scientists today deal with such vast datasets that visualization is often more important than graphing, just as modeling is often more important than equation solving. The June 2005 report of the President's Information Technology Advisory Council stated that "Computational science is now indispensable to the solution of complex problems in every sector, from traditional science and engineering domains to such key areas as national security, public health, and economic innovation" (PITAC 2005).

This shift in how science is done allows for experiments that previously would have been impossible (such as studying certain nuclear reactions) or dangerous (such as studying the spread of infectious diseases in an urban environment). Changing professional methods call for changing instruction--students need to be introduced to computation as a natural part of science.

To help teachers meet this challenging task, the Computational Science Education Reference Desk (CSERD,, a portal to the National Science Digital Library (NSDL,, catalogs lessons and tools for teaching with computational science. CSERD provides a place for teachers to go and find the good stuff--materials that are correct and have clear usefulness in the classroom. CSERD does not accept any payment from sites for including materials in the catalog and does not endorse specific solutions, but seeks to provide trusted information about options that teachers have, while pointing them to material that has been proven useful and correct. CSERD's list of links is handpicked by science and education professionals, and includes a mechanism in place for collecting and sharing reviews. Users search for items by keyword, subject, grade level, and audience, and should soon be able to search by state and national standards in the future. CSERD reviews items on three criteria--verification (is the model well crafted?), validation (is the model correct and used properly?), and accreditation (is the model appropriate, correlated to grade-level and state and national standards?). CSERD's search tool is available for free to teachers and students, as are most of the resources housed within (Joiner et al. 2005).

Currently the site houses over 750 resources ranging in audience level from sixth grade to undergraduate, and covering subjects in chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, Earth science, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. Efforts are underway to continue populating the catalog through workshops with teachers and to review those resources to ensure quality.

Example reviews

Specific examples of CSERD tools and their reviews are presented for the concept of conservation of momentum (see Figure 1). The tools that are presented are "Momentum," a JAVA applet included in the VLAB collection maintained by Greg Bothun at the University of Oregon and "1D Collision: Conservation of Momentum," part of the Virtual Physics Laboratory by Hwang and Mason (see References). The tools allow for the study of the problem of collisions in one dimension, with varying degrees of flexibility, packaged instructional modules, and cost.

Review criteria


In attempting to address whether an educational simulation is verified, one is essentially testing whether it is well-crafted. This depends on the technology of implementing the model (i.e., programming) and on the basis for creating the model (i.e., Is there sound scientific reasoning to believe the model?). Because much of the logic behind online models is hidden behind the scenes, this is often limited to simple bug testing.


Validation is fundamentally a test of whether the science learned from the simulation is correct for the user. …