Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Environmental Systems Simulations for Carbon, Energy, Nitrogen, Water, and Watersheds: Design Principles and Pilot Testing

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Environmental Systems Simulations for Carbon, Energy, Nitrogen, Water, and Watersheds: Design Principles and Pilot Testing

Article excerpt


Understanding of biogeochemical cycles and their interaction with socioenvironmental systems is an important element of the Next Generation Science Standards (2013a, 2013b). A model and modeling approach (Lesh and Doerr, 2003), such as the development of computer-based simulations, has the potential to improve understanding of these essential Earth systems and the natural resource management challenges they pose. For example, computer models can elucidate system properties or large-scale phenomena that are not reproducible in physical laboratories or textbook-based presentations. Moreover, McKagan et al. (2008) argue that computer simulations help students build quantitative intuition about physical systems.

Some have argued that constructivist approaches to learning (see Inhelder and Piaget, 1958) such as discovery, inquiry, and problem-based learning are unproven and inconsistent with well-established principles of educational psychology such as regulating cognitive load and targeting the development of long-term memory by avoiding unnecReceived essary demands on short-term working memory (Kirschner et al., 2006). Yet others rebut that, while of course these pedagogies can be poorly implemented and students utilizing them do require guidance, fundamentally different forms of constructivist learning must be differentiated (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007). Problem-based learning exercises and products, in particular, can be designed to contain the essential elements of "worked examples" praised by Kirschner et al. (2006) and, properly scaffolded through the strategic employment of affordances and constraints (see Podolefsky et al., 2010), can avoid cognitive overload and limit demands on working memory, thus enabling learning.

More specifically, a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education literature has been developed that considers the merits of well-designed computer-based simulations as complements or replacements for traditional science laboratories that focus on measuring phenomena using advanced equipment. Weiman et al. (2008) argue that anxieties about the potential for injury or breaking expensive equipment divert students' attention in physical laboratory settings. While Marshall et al. (2015) report that COSMOL Multiphysics did not improve students' understanding of groundwater hydrology compared to standard pedagogy, other experiments with simulations structured as problem-based learning were more successful in improving learning outcomes and engaging students. Pyatt and Sims (2012, 145) argue that equipment-based "hands-on" laboratories do not promote learning or modify understanding of concepts. They report rather that students viewed virtual laboratory experiences as realistic, complex, and effective in exploring and manipulating experimental variables. Computer modeling-based laboratory exercises can thus match or exceed physical laboratory exercises in student performance and contradict the notion that they are not "real" or "hands-on."

The Physics Educational Technology (PhET) project has been particularly instructive in the design of STEM educational simulations and their pedagogical merits. Using a PhET simulation, Finkelstein et al. (2005) report that introductory physics students who had utilized a computer simulation of circuits not only scored significantly better on final examination questions than students who had performed a laboratory exercise with real circuits, but they were able to build a real circuit in less time. Perkins et al. (2006) report that only 27% of the students shown a traditional tygon tube demonstration correctly answered a test question, compared with 71% of the students shown a simulation. Weiman et al. (2008, 683) conclude:

Carefully developed and tested educational simulations can be engaging and effective. They encourage authentic and productive exploration of scientific phenomena, and they provide credible animated models that usefully guide students' thinking. …

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