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Using Computer Simulations in Learning- 1

Quote of the Week

Every maker of video games knows something that the makers of curriculum don’t seem to understand. You’ll never see a video game being advertised as being easy. Kids who do not like school will tell you it’s not because it’s too hard. It’s because it’s boring. Seymour Papert, Mathematician, Computer Scientist and Educator (MIT)

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and collaborating on this.

In this week’s main post we highlight the huge potential computer simulations have to enable deeper and richer learning and share 2 examples of this. We will continue to feature more examples of the use of simulations in learning, in future editions.

You are invited to be an early member and beta-tester of the GenWise Club (ages 13-90), a community of interested students, parents, and educators. Check out this link for more about the club and how to join it. It is open to all in the current beta phase. 

Join this conversation on learning, by commenting on our posts, or joining our club community for more regular and closer interactions.


Using Computer Simulations in Learning

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

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Using Computer Simulations in Learning- 1

The last 10-15 years has seen an explosion in the availability of simulation tools for facilitating learning. Simulations can be very powerful as learning aids because they allow us to see what is not visible and to change input parameters (e.g. height of a ball) and explore their effects (e.g. the speed with which it hits the ground).

In spite of the availability of these tools, we do not see a widespread improvement in learning levels of students. There are various reasons for this and the most important ones in out opinion are-

All simulation tools are not designed well and teachers may not be aware of the well-designed ones.

Learning using simulation tools still requires ‘guided exercises’ for proper understanding (the guidance can be by a teacher or automated through a system). When such guidance is lacking, simulations can end as ‘passive watching’ experiences.

This post is the first in a series of posts in which we will highlight well-designed simulation tools/ platforms offering tools that can help in learning. We will post about these every few weeks as there is a wide range of such tools available. A teacher or an interested adult can help the child to learn using these tools, or a child could learn on her own too (though some guidance and feedback is more effective).

In this post we feature 2 excellent platforms- CT-STEM from Northwestern University and PhET from the University of Colorado at Boulder. While we are featuring STEM examples here, simulation tools can be effective in the social sciences as well. In this past issue- Bhagavad Gita and a Game Theory Simulation, we had spoken about a very powerful simulation on the evolution of trust.


Sugat Dabholkar, a doctoral researcher at Northwestern University, has developed various simulations for learning and also used these to teach children in classroom settings. We share the sample of a lesson here from his course ‘Computational Modeling in the Natural and Social Sciences’ conducted for GenWise in July 2020.

In a lesson on the physics of free fall, the simulation allows the user to simultaneously observe 3 different representations of the motion of a falling ball, after every 1 second of the fall-

the position of the ball

the distance travelled by the ball

the velocity of the ball

This is very powerful as it allows students to visualize how the change in position of the ball keeps increasing under uniform acceleration, and also internalise why the velocity vs time graph would be a straight line under uniform acceleration and so on. The standard way of teaching this topic is to derive the equations of motion algebraically- while that is important, such simulations make it much easier for students to visualise the phenomenon and relationships between various concepts like position, distance, velocity and acceleration.

It is not just the simulation though that enables learning. There are carefully constructed questions in a considered sequence that guide the learner. In the above lesson for example, learners are asked to note down their observations on how distance, velocity, acceleration, kinetic energy and potential energy change with time. And after that they are asked- “Observe what happens when the mass of the ball is changed. Write your observations below. Mention which aspects regarding the motion and energy of the ball change and which remain unchanged.”

Such carefully guided inquiry is crucial in making learning happen- irrespective of whether a computer simulation is used or not.


GenWise mentor, Hari Krishna, shares his experience of teaching the topic of matter using a simulation from PhET in his course ‘Connecting the Dots: Concepts in Chemistry’.

For a long time (till the 1800s), matter was thought to be continuous. Even today it is not easy for the non-scientist to visualise the fact that matter is composed of tiny particles and the space between these particles is empty (vacuum). This intuitive difficulty in understanding the nature of matter leads to all kinds of difficulties in understanding physical phenomena. It also leads to many misconceptions- for example, many students believe that the space between molecules is occupied by air (which is wrong- it is vacuum).

The theory of ‘Particulate Nature of Matter’ is an important idea that explains many phenomena in Physics and Chemistry. When understood well, it builds a strong foundation and makes it much simpler to understand subsequent concepts.

The particulate nature of matter is overlooked in many classes and is not discussed in detail. The result is that students carry many misconceptions well into higher grades. For example I have come across students who think that in the same substance particles in the solid state are different from the particles in gaseous state. In my interactions with the students, I use simulations to discuss this important idea.

Instead of just using the simulation as a visual prop I ask some questions which encourages students to play around and investigate the concept in more detail on their own.

For example this simulation from PhET allows the learner to change the state, temperature etc. and simulates how the molecules/atoms behave in different states and at different temperatures.

While using this simulation I ask students to observe one common behavior in solid and liquid states which is different from gaseous state. Also I ask them to identify one common behaviour which is common between liquid and gaseous states which is different from the solid state. As I ask questions along these lines, students come up with different observations.

Some of the common observations students make are-

The volume in solid and liquid phases is fixed because there is no space left between the particles, whereas in gas there is lot of space between the particles which can be compressed or expanded and hence gasses do not have fixed volume.

If a gas is compressed enough it will turn into liquid.

There are many other interesting observations that students make and every time I do this activity with students, there is always good engagement and a rich exchange of ideas in the class.

This kind of lesson supported by the simulation helps students to see the connection between all the three different states of matter- which is that in all states the particles are the same; they also start realizing the difference between each phase- which is the way these particles interact with each other.

Leave a comment below if you have come across any simulations you found good.

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

Details of upcoming GenWise courses are available here. The next course coming is the popular course by GenWise mentor, Dr. Bhooshan Shukla on parenting teenagers.

Upcoming External Events

All the events listed below are free- though registration is required for some of them.

Astrobiology- Join ‘Talk to a Scientist’ in their next episode in which scientists Dr. Karishma Kaushik and Snehal Kadam talk to student guest Nitya Palekar about this topic. Saturday, Aug 15 2021, 5-6 pm IST. For ages 6-16. Register here.

Indian Independence, Science and the World (Chai and Why series targeted at children) on Sunday, Aug 15, 2021 at 11 AM from the cool TIFR outreach team. Zoom, YouTube & FBLive links available here. The session is conducted by Indira Chowdhury, the first archivist of the TIFR archives. She has a Ph.D. in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is now the director of the Centre for Public History at the Srishti-Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. She is an avid collector of stories and has conducted oral history interviews with a range of people – from scientists and museum curators to traditional midwives and folk performers.

The session blurb says-

“This presentation uses archival material to connect the history of Indian science to World War II, Indian Independence, the Partition and the international aspects of institution building that Homi Bhabha initiated at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Archival material in the form of documents, photographs and oral history interviews enable us to understand scientific institution building in Independent India as well as the impact of larger political events on scientific practice. Through the excavation and analysis of stories available at TIFR and in other Archives, this talk offers an alternative way of understanding the history of science alongside the histories of nation building and international politics and also addresses the question – why are archives important?.”

Biodiversity in my Bengaluru Backyard Contest, for students of grades 9-12 based in Bengaluru. Details of the contest are available here.

Introducing Pearson Cogmed– on Saturday, August 21, 2021 at 4 pm is moderated by Shweta Sharan, who says

“As a mother to a neuro diverse child, I am part of many international dyslexia groups on Facebook and many parents recommended the Cogmed working memory training software.

We are doing a program on Cogmed, a working memory training software and intervention programme. I was skeptical but I asked a few friends and special educators I know about Cogmed. Turns out, a few of them are Cogmed coaches and tell me that it works well when implemented well.

I am teaming up with Linguaphile UK to conduct a free webinar on Pearson’s new software for children with Learning Difficulties. Cogmed is a peer-reviewed and evidence-based program that now has many updates.

As we know, working memory is at the root of many challenges for children with learning difficulties, ADHD and other neuro diversities. So will Cogmed work? How does it work? How can a child transition from pure recall to recording something in writing or applying himself/herself?

Attend this free webinar, ask your questions, watch the demo and find out more. Sign up here.


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