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New Pedagogies on Teaching Science with Computer Simulations

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Teaching science with computer simulations is a complex undertaking. This case study examines how an experienced science teacher taught chemistry using computer simulations and the impact of his teaching on his students. Classroom observations over 3 semesters, teacher interviews, and student surveys were collected. The data was analyzed for (1) patterns in teacher-student-computer interactions, and (2) the outcome of these interactions on student learning. Using Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) as a theoretical framework, analysis of the data indicates that computer simulations were employed in a unique instructional cycle across 11 topics in the science curriculum and that several teacher-developed heuristics were important to guiding the pedagogical approach. The teacher followed a pattern of “generate-evaluate-modify” (GEM) to teach chemistry, and simulation technology (T) was integrated in every stage of GEM (or T-GEM). Analysis of the student survey suggested that engagement with T-GEM enhanced conceptual understanding of chemistry. The author postulates the affordances of computer simulations and suggests T-GEM and its heuristics as an effective and viable pedagogy for teaching science with technology.

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  1. Computerized molecular drawing programs may not be considered simulations in the strictest sense, if they are limited to the construction of graphical models (e.g. selection of elements, bonds, charges, frames) and where users cannot view the outcome of changes to their model (e.g. changes to molecular weight, bond strength, forces).


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Correspondence to Samia Khan.

Appendix 1: Pedagogy and Simulation Technology Student Survey

Appendix 1: Pedagogy and Simulation Technology Student Survey

This survey will be used to inform us about your experiences in chemistry. Thank you for your participation in this survey.

Please respond to the statements using the A to E scheme below.

  • A = strongly agree

  • B = generally agree

  • C = neutral or agree and disagree about the same

  • D = generally disagree

  • E = strongly disagree

  1. 1.

    A demonstration of a chemical phenomenon is more effective for my learning than an interactive simulation of the same chemical phenomenon.

  2. 2.

    There are more frequent opportunities to generate scientific ideas in this class than in most other classes.

  3. 3.

    An important advantage of the computer simulations is that they make unobservable processes in chemistry more explicit to me.

  4. 4.

    I have been asked to construct explanations about scientific information that was presented in a computer simulation.

  5. 5.

    When using computer simulations in class, if I do not understand the concept before hand, the in-class simulation compounds my confusion instead of clarifying the concept.

  6. 6.

    The use of simulations in class has contributed to the development of my ability to critically analyze a problem in chemistry.

  7. 7.

    Teacher guidance is necessary for the effective use of simulations.

  8. 8.

    I sometimes input extreme case data in the simulations to test the boundaries of my ideas about chemistry.

  9. 9.

    I find myself asking “what would happen if…” science questions more often in this course than other courses.

  10. 10.

    There are more frequent opportunities for students to make and test predictions in this class than in other most other classes.

  11. 11.

    I am asked to challenge or evaluate a scientific idea more often in this class than my other classes.

  12. 12.

    I modify my ideas about chemistry more often because of classroom discussion than from doing homework.

  13. 13.

    The computer graphics of molecular structures used in lecture contributed to my learning in this course in a way that went beyond what I learned from the pictures used in the text.

  14. 14.

    By the conclusion of class, I usually feel I understand the chemistry concept of that lesson.

  15. 15.

    The use of simulations has contributed to the development of my ability to critically analyze a problem in chemistry.

  16. 16.

    Having us generate, evaluate, and modify relationships is valuable to my understanding of the concepts in chemistry.

  17. 17.

    This class would be more effective for me if the instructor provided the information and rules instead of asking me to gather information from the simulations in class and generate relationships myself.

  18. 18.

    I find it difficult to see the patterns in the data from the computer simulations.

  19. 19.

    I sometimes input extreme case data in the simulations to test the boundaries of my ideas about chemistry.

  20. 20.

    I have had to modify some of my initial ideas about a chemical relationship by the conclusion of the lesson.

For statements 21–24, please use the following legend:

  • A = 0–19%

  • B = 20–39%

  • C = 40–59%

  • D = 60–79%

  • E = 80–100%

  1. 21.

    In general, I am able to complete _____% of the activities or exercises called for with the computer in chemistry.

  2. 22.

    I am able to comprehend _____% of the material discussed in the class.

  3. 23.

    I have been able to solve ____% of the homework problems on time.

  4. 24.

    I understand _____ % of the relationships in chemistry that are generated from the class by students.

For the questions below, please use the scheme below:

  • A = 1st

  • B = 2nd best

  • C = 3rd best

  • D = 4th best

  • E = 5th best

  • F = 6th best

  • G = 7th best

Rank where the greatest learning happens for you in chemistry between Q. 25 to 31 from 1 to 7th best. Assign each of the rankings only once between 25 and 31.

  1. 25.

    Classroom demonstrations

  2. 26.

    Classroom simulations

  3. 27.

    OWL (electronic homework system)

  4. 28.


  5. 29.

    Peer discussion

  6. 30.

    Reading the textbook

  7. 31.

    Teacher discussion with students during class

For the second ranking question below, please use the following legend:

  • A = 1st

  • B = 2nd best

  • C = 3rd best

  • D = 4th best

  • E = 5th best

  • F = 6th best

  • G = 7th best

  • H = 8th best

  • I = 9th best

Rank where the greatest learning happens for you in chemistry between Q. 32 to 40 from 1 to 9th best. Assign each of the rankings only once between 32 and 40.

  1. 32.

    Reading the text

  2. 33.

    Collecting information from the simulation

  3. 34.

    Generating relationships in chemistry

  4. 35.

    Evaluating relationships in chemistry

  5. 36.

    Modifying the relationship because of new information

  6. 37.

    OWL (electronic homework system)

  7. 38.


  8. 39.

    Peer discussion around the computer

  9. 40.

    Independent use of simulations outside of class

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Khan, S. New Pedagogies on Teaching Science with Computer Simulations. J Sci Educ Technol 20, 215–232 (2011).

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