puter keyboard to apply forces to dots to move them along specified paths. Part of the key to the software’s guidance is that it provides representations of forces and accelerations in which students can see change in response to their actions. A “dot trace,” for example, shows students how applying more force affects an object’s acceleration in a predictable way. A “vector cross” represents the individual components of forces applied in two dimensions in a way that helps students to link those forces to an object’s motion.
ThinkerTools is but one example of this type of interactive, representational software. Others have been developed to help students reason about motion (Roschelle, 1992), electricity (Gutwill, Fredericksen, and White, 1999), heat and temperature (Linn, Bell, and Hsi, 1998), genetics (Horwitz and Christie, 2000), and chemical reactions (Kozma, 2003), among others. These programs differ substantially from one another in how they represent their target phenomena, as there are substantial differences in the topics themselves and in the problems that students are known to have in understanding them. They share, however, a common approach to solving a similar set of problems—how to represent natural phenomena that are otherwise invisible in ways that help students make their own thinking explicit and guide them to normative scientific understanding.
When used as a supplement to hands-on laboratory experiences within integrated instructional units, these representations can support students’ conceptual change (e.g., Linn et al., 1998; White and Frederiksen, 1998). For example, students working through the ThinkerTools curriculum always experiment with objects in the real world before they work with the computer tools. The goals of the laboratory experiences are to provide some experience with the phenomena under study and some initial ideas that can then be explored on the computer.
Various types of simulations of phenomena represent another form of technology for science learning. These simulations allow students to explore and observe phenomena that are too expensive, infeasible, or even dangerous to interact with directly. Strictly speaking, a computer simulation is a program that simulates a particular phenomenon by running a computational model whose behavior can sometimes be changed by modifying input parameters to the model. For example, the GenScope program provides a set of linked representations of genetics and genetics phenomena that would otherwise be unavailable for study to most students (Horowitz and Christie, 2000). The software represents alleles, chromosomes, family pedigrees, and the like and links representations across levels in ways that enable students to trace inherited traits to specific genetic differences. The software uses an underlying Mendelian model of genetic inheritance to gov-