Teaching Methods

What are Simulations?
Computer simulations are different than animations. Animations are visual objects that are programmed to move in a particular way.

A simulation is running iterations of a computational model. In simulations, the variables are related by mathematical formulas. All of my simulations are iterative. Each time step the models use the previous time step quantities to calculate the new amounts of the different variables. The models are dynamic systems. The variables change quantities over time.


  • Generate questions

  • Explore and test hypotheses iteratively and incrementally

  • Experience the dynamics of a system to allow students to accept increased responsibility in constructing their own knowledge

  • Experiment with variables and observe effects allows students a more active understanding of a system


  • Reduces cognitive load by allowing students to explore and experience the results on the system from incremental changes.

  • Allows students to breakdown phenomena into pieces

  • Understand that scientific models are useful and limiting.


Stave, Krytyna A. (2011)

  • Simplify complex systems, and interact with parts of system structures that are not apparent.

  • Speed up processing times helping learners experience and observe faster than they would observe in the real world.

  • Keep track of learner decisions

  • Reduce cognitive load by allowing students to focus on the underlying concepts rather than the complex mathematical calculations that are used to construct the simulations.

  • Provide platforms that are perceptually and spatially rich.

  • Emphasize experience over explanation by allowing users to actively constructing their own learning by incrementally perturbing parameters of the simulation.

  • Learners experiment with independent variables and observe how dependent variables change as a result.

WHAT ARE EFFECTIVE USES OF SIMULATIONS IN THE CLASSROOM? Rehn, Moore, Podolefsky, and Finkelstein (2013)

  1. Mediate discussion and assumptions, focus on illuminating cases, and coordinate multiple forms of representation

  2. Gamify with discovery: perturb, run, reflect

  3. Experiment and practice science: predict, observe, and explain

  4. Recreate or represent features

  1. Multiple Forms of Representation

2. Gamify with Discovery: Perturb, Run, Reflect

What is the carrying capacity of the white-footed mouse population?

3. Experiment and Practice Science: Predict, Observe Explain

CER Model (From Data Nuggets)

4. Recreate or represent features

Draw how the lactase would change at 30℃, versus 80℃ according to the lactase simulation.

Why Are the Simulations Valuable?

I use simulations to teach scientific practices. With simulations, students can ask questions using the models and carry out the investigations running dozens of trials and experiments in a single class period. Using a simulation can limit creativity in designing an experiment, but simulations help students focus on appropriate variables to manipulate in a system.

Students often have trouble designing controlled experiments and only manipulating a single variable at a time. Students want to change too much. This poor habit of mind is especially apparent when students are experimenting with simulations. HOWEVER, using simulations repeatedly throughout the year allows the teacher to intervene when students are running simulations to highlight the importance of controlling for variables.

Because the simulations are quantitative, students develop computational thinking as they manipulate and calculate the relationships between variables in the models. Students using simulations interact with computational models that reveal important properties of many systems including, positive and negative feedback loops, set points, thresholds, robustness, and sensitivity. While these concepts are challenging to learn algebraically, simulations help students understand the concepts operationally.

Most importantly, simulations create data for students to reflect on. I have found that students enjoy running simulations, and in the process they gain a deeper understanding of the variables in a system. Students using simulations should use the data to drive their decisions. This is the most valuable lesson. Instead of students reading, watching, or listening to biology, they construct their own understanding based on the simulation. This is what I want my students to do. I want my students to see science as process of testing claims based on evidence.