At a time when scientific and technological competence is vital to the nation’s future, the weak science achievement of U.S. students reflects the uneven quality of science education. Although children come to school with innate curiosity about the natural world, science classes rarely foster their interest. Students spend time listening to lectures, carrying out preordained “cookbook” laboratory activities, and memorizing the science facts that are emphasized in current high-stakes tests, losing interest in science as they move beyond elementary school. Many graduate from high school without the science knowledge that could be of enormous value in their future lives, as informed citizens or as members of the scientific and technical workforce.
Many experts call for a new approach to science education, based in cognitive research. In this approach, teachers spark students’ interest by engaging them in investigations, helping them to develop understanding of both science concepts and science processes while maintaining motivation for science learning.
Computer simulations and games have great potential to catalyze this new approach. They enable learners to see and interact with representations of natural phenomena that would otherwise be impossible to observe—a process that helps them to formulate scientifically correct explanations for these phenomena. Simulations and games can motivate learners with challenges and rapid feedback and tailor instruction to individual learners’ needs and interests. To explore this potential, the National Science Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation charged the National Research Council:
An ad hoc committee will plan and conduct a two-day workshop to explore the connections between what is known about science learning and computer gaming and simulations, the role computer gaming and simulations
could play in assessing learning, and the pathways by which they could be used on a large scale. Following the workshop, the committee will meet to discuss the existing evidence, drawing on the presentations and materials shared at the workshop, and come to consensus about priorities for a future research agenda. It will write a report that summarizes the workshop and provides the committee’s conclusions and recommendations about a future research agenda in this area.
The workshop agenda will address the three critical topics highlighted above and provide the basis for the development of a research agenda. The workshop will feature invited presentations and discussions of available research evidence and discuss possible research pathways for obtaining answers to three core questions:
What is the connection between learning theory and computer gaming and simulations?
What role could computer gaming and simulations play in the assessment of student learning?
What are the pathways by which computer gaming and simulation could materialize at sufficient scale to fully evaluate their learning and assessment potential?
Although research on how simulations and games support science learning has not kept pace with the rapid development of these new learning technologies, the evidence was sufficient to reach the conclusions summarized here.
Simulations and games are both based on computer models and allow user interactions, but each has unique features. Simulations are dynamic computer models that allow users to explore the implications of manipulating or modifying parameters within them. Games are often played in informal contexts for fun, incorporate explicit goals and rules, and provide feedback on the player’s progress. In a game, the player’s actions affect the state of play.
The committee views simulations and games as worthy of future investment and investigation as a means to improve science learning. Simulations and games have potential to advance multiple science learning goals, including motivation to learn science, conceptual understanding, science process skills, understanding of the nature of science, scientific discourse and argumentation, and identification with science and science learning.
Most studies of simulations have focused on conceptual understanding, providing promising evidence that simulations can advance this science learning goal. There is moderate evidence that simulations motivate students’ interest in science and science learning, and less evidence about whether they support other science learning goals.
Evidence for the effectiveness of games for supporting science learning is emerging but is currently inconclusive. To date, the research base is very limited.
Gaps and weaknesses in the research on simulations and games make it difficult to build a coherent base of evidence that could demonstrate their effectiveness and inform improvements. The proposed research agenda takes a stronger, more systematic approach to research and development.
To strengthen the overall quality of the research:
Researchers and developers should clearly specify the desired learning outcomes of a simulation or game and describe in detail how it is expected to advance these outcomes. They should describe the design features that are hypothesized to activate learning, the intended use of these design features, and the underlying learning theory. This will allow research findings to accumulate, providing a base for improved designs and enhanced effectiveness for learning.
Researchers should initially develop methodologies for both design and evaluation that focus on continual improvement. The use of such methodologies will help to ensure that large studies are not outdated by the time they are published due to rapid changes in technology and advances in cognitive science.
The committee’s full research agenda (in Chapter 7) recommends targeted research to increase understanding of the following topics:
the role of simulations and games in learning,
using them in formal and informal contexts,
using them to assess and support individualized learning, and
scaling up simulations and games.
To facilitate ongoing improvement in simulations and games for science learning:
Academic researchers, developers and entrepreneurs from the gaming industry, and education practitioners and policy makers should form research and development partnerships to facilitate rich intellectual collaboration. These partnerships, which may be large or small, should coordinate and share information internally and with other partnerships.
Government agencies and foundations may consider the potential benefits of providing sustained support for such partnerships.
This research agenda is intended to provide guidance to active and prospective researchers, simulation and game developers, commercial publishers, and funders. In the future, the agenda will have to adapt and evolve along with the continued rapid evolution of educational simulations and games.