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Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations
tion. In the context of formal education, the professor or teacher requires the students to interact with the simulation or game, and the students may or may not be motivated. In informal contexts, individuals play a game or manipulate a simulation for fun, motivated by their own interest and enjoyment (see Chapter 4 for further discussion). Reflecting this difference, most studies have focused on using educational simulations and games in either a formal or informal context; few have explored their potential to support learning across the boundaries of time and place. This chapter therefore focuses on formal educational settings, and informal settings are discussed separately in the following chapter.
Simulations and games have great potential to improve science learning in elementary, secondary, and undergraduate science classrooms. They can individualize learning to match the pace, interests, and capabilities of each particular student and contextualize learning in engaging virtual environments. Because schools serve all students, increased use of simulations and games in science classrooms could potentially improve access to high-quality learning experiences for diverse urban, suburban, and rural students. The U.S. Department of Education’s (2010) draft National Education Technology Plan states (p. vi):
The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures.
In higher education, where faculty members generally have more control over selection of curriculum and teaching methods than do K-12 teachers, the use of simulations is growing. The number of higher education institutions accessing the PhET simulations online more than doubled over the past five years, from 580 in 2005-2006 to 1,297 in 2009-2010, and the number of online sessions by users at these institutions grew from 13,180 to 269,1771 (Perkins, 2010). Among physics faculty responding to a 2008 survey about research-based instructional strategies, small proportions reported currently using other simulations and simulation-based learning environments, including Physlets (13.0 percent), RealTime physics virtual laboratories (7.3 percent), and OpenSource Physics (21.8 percent) (Henderson and Dancy, 2009).
The use of simulations and virtual laboratory packages is also gaining
The PhET simulations can also be downloaded and installed for use offline, but no data are available on the number of offline sessions.