In this article, the basic characteristics of scientific and educational simulations are discussed. Research findings which support their educational effectiveness are presented, and emphasis is placed on the pedagogical issues of designing and using simulation environments aiming at facilitating students’ engagement and active knowledge construction.
Generally speaking, a simulation is a technique of imitating the behaviour of a situation, process, or system by means of an analogous system. In the simplest sense, a system is a set of interacting identities. In the case of scientific simulations, this analogous system is a mathematical model. The mathematical equations that produce the model represent the various processes which take place within the target system. In other words, this model constitutes a simplified or idealised representation of a system by means of a set of mathematical equations (algebraic, differential, or integral). The mathematical model becomes a simulation by solving numerically (i.e., for varying sets of input values) the equations comprising in order to imitate or simulate the dynamic (time-varying) behaviour of the system (Fishwick, 1995).
In a computer simulation, the mathematical model is produced by proper executable algorithms, which are used to solve the mathematical equations. Consequently, a computer-based simulation is a software application that embodies a model of the actual or theoretical system, executing the model on a computer and analysing the output. Any system in either the micro- or the macro-world can be simulated, providing that its behaviour can be described by a computer model (algorithm). Usually, a simulation model is an abstraction that behaves somewhat like the original system, thus allowing users to replicate only a small part of the actual system under investigation (e.g., its key features or characteristics).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Educational Simulation: It is a computer simulation created to facilitate learning on the part of students or trainees. Educational simulations are abstracted or simplified representations of a target system, which are neither as complex nor as realistic as the relevant scientific simulations.
Scientific Simulation: It is a technique of imitating the behavior of an actual or theoretical system by means of an analogous mathematical model. In the simplest sense, a system is a set of interacting identities. The mathematical equations that produce the model represent the various processes taking place within the target system. Currently, simulation uses cover a wide range of applications within the areas of research, analysis studies, system design, training and education, entertainment, and so forth.
Instructional Overlay: It is the component of a conceptual simulation, characterized by those features defining the educational context, the representational forms, the educational approach, and the tasks used. A well-designed instructional overlay should: (a) prompt and motivate students’ engagement, (b) incorporate feedback and other tools that may assist and guide students towards the educational goals, (c) focus students’ attention upon cognitively important aspects of the simulation, and (d) unfold the complexity of the simulation over a series of stages in order that students not be overloaded or overwhelmed.
Operational Simulations: They are educational simulations designed to facilitate the construction of practical knowledge, for example, in areas such as medical training, pilot training, and so forth. They are based on operational models, which use nonstandard input and output mechanisms.
Virtual Reality (VR): It is a three-dimensional (3D), realistic and highly interactive multimedia environment, in which the user becomes a participant in a computer-generated virtual world. The key feature of a VR simulation is its real-time interactivity, where the computer is able to detect user inputs and instantaneously modify the virtual world in accordance to user interactions. VR-based simulation environments could be explorative or immersive (which consist of special hardware parts including head-mounted displays, motion-sensing data gloves, eye phones, etc.).
Constructivism: According to the constructivist view of learning, students do not passively absorb information, but rather, meaningful learning occurs through an active construction and modification of their knowledge structures. When students are learning they use their existing knowledge, beliefs, interests, and goals to interpret any new information, and this may result in their ideas becoming modified or revised. There are two main constructivist schools: (a) cognitive constructivism, which emphasizes on the personal construction of knowledge; (b) social constructivism, which emphasizes on knowledge construction in particular social and cultural contexts. In both cases, the emphasis is on interactive environments where students are given opportunities to negotiate their ideas and meanings. According to this view, teachers have a central role in providing guidance and support to their students (scaffolding).
Conceptual Models: They are mental models created by the cooperative activities of scientists and domain specialists. These are objective representations in the sense that they are consistent with the relevant scientific paradigms.
Computer Simulation: In a computer simulation, proper executable algorithms produce the underlying mathematical model. There are two key features defining a computer simulation: (a) a computer model of the target system that contains information on how the system behaves (formal entities, properties, rules, and relationships among them), and (b) experimentation can take place; for example, the user can change the input to the model, thus affecting its output behavior.
Mental Models: They are schemata and representations of the real world phenomena constructed by students. They contain a set of information about what students already know, either correct or incorrect. Students usually exhibit mental models, which are not consistent with the relevant scientific paradigms.
Conceptual Simulations: Conceptual simulations are educational simulations designed to facilitate conceptual knowledge construction on the part of the students. They are based on conceptual models which: (a) simulate the relationships that exist between the variables of a real-world system and (b) allow the students to manipulate those variables. There are three main components in a conceptual simulation: the simulation scenario, the mathematical model of the target system, and the instructional overlay.