top of page

Grounding abstract concepts with simulations

Using Simulations to Improve Understanding of Conceptually Abstract Science Topics

Every science teacher in the country must shudder at the thought of being asked the question: “But sir, why do we need to know this?”. Often I can come up with some clever contextual link to technology or a wider application or, at my worst, simply state that learning an idea will ensure that they are scientifically literate as an adult. The influential Beyond 2000 report (Millar & Osbourne, 1998) report led to the major context based curriculum reforms aimed to increase scientific literacy seen over the previous decade. But what do we do when there isn’t a clear contextual link? In this short blog I explore this problem within my own classroom and look at the use of student-led, guided inquiry, using free on-line simulations as a solution. Initially this is approached in light of the literature before delving more deeply into its application when teaching about ions at the start of a phase of lessons on ionic bonding to a middle attaining year 10 class studying double science.

What does the research say about using computer simulations in the classroom?

The abstract and complex nature of many scientific ideas is probably sufficient grounds for many learners to find learning science challenging—in turn making teaching challenging for many science teachers.” (Taber, 2014, p. 27).

One of the greatest challenges facing science teachers is how to make more abstract concepts such as chemical bonding, energy and electricity more relevant, engaging and understandable for students to learn, particularly when a contextual link is unsatisfactory. A potential solution might be the use of simulation in the science classroom. In Webb’s review of the literature she summarises evidence that the integration of simulations into conceptually difficult topics in science may improve students’ achievement (2010, p.163).

There is also a strong link between student attitudes towards science - specifically finding science lessons enjoyable - and the types of activities students do in lessons. Dewitt and Osbourne (2008) report that activities that engage students the most are ones that move towards a greater amount of autonomous, self-directed and collaborative learning. Wellington and Britto (2004, p. 211) in their comparison of classroom based learning, learning through ICT and home learning present findings that learning through ICT has the potential to be learner-led and learner-centred. This potential for ICT in the science classroom to motivate students as well as increase learning outcomes reassures me that it is a worthwhile avenue to investigate in my classroom.

Outlining my problem

In teaching conceptually challenging abstract ideas, I have by default resorted to direct instruction for students who don’t always have a previous knowledge base in which to extend ideas. In my experience, the problem I have found is that students can remember ‘tricks’ to answer exam questions but too often I find students’ understanding to be superficial. As an example, students find extending the atomic model of an atom to finding the electronic configurations of ions particularly challenging. In fact, students will often be able to find the charge of an ion using the periodic table but fail to relate this back to atomic structure.

It is almost as if ions and atomic structure have formed as unrelated concepts in students’ minds. Furthermore, in diagnostic questions asking students to work out the number of electrons, protons and neutrons in an ion they will default to their more comfortable understanding of ‘neutral’ atoms and are thus unable to answer these questions.

Having used a large number of Phet simulations (Wieman, C. E., Adams W. K., & Perkins K. K., 2008) as part of my physics teaching the research got me thinking more about how to use simulations in student led activities when teaching conceptually challenging topics. A turning point for me was using Phet: Energy Skate Park in an inquiry based activity. Working in pairs, students were introduced to conservation of energy, kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy. In teaching this before using direct instruction, I have been unimpressed by students’ reliance on equations when explaining energy. Instead, the use of the simulation led students to be able to articulate how different observables effect both kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy and additionally how these ideas fundamentally relate. In a new context, these observations led to a question: does the use of the Phet: Atom Builder simulation impact students understanding of ions?

What does research have to say about students’ difficulties in learning about ions?

In their paper on using an interactive website to enhance students’ understanding of the concept of chemical bonding Frailich, Kesner and Hofstein (2009) summarise the literature on students’ misconceptions of chemical bonding. They state that atomic structure is considered an abstract concept and that students find great difficulty in shifting between the macroscopic and microscopic – a key criteria for success in understanding chemical bonding. Their mixed-methods study using achievement questionnaires as well as observation of teachers and students show that an interactive website can provide students with the opportunity to construct a rigorous conceptual understanding of chemical bonding. Their study used the interactive website with clearly defined student-led activities and the opportunity to collaborate with both their peers and the teacher. The lessons in the study began with 5-10 minutes of teacher explanation followed by the remainder of the lesson pupils working in groups of 2-3 on the website task. In planning my lesson sequence, this seemingly successful method of computer integration in a learner-led learner-centred manner informed my planning of a more engaging ions lesson that gave students a good conceptual understanding.

Implementing this within my own classroom: Does using a simulation in a self-directed guided inquiry activity provide students’ with a conceptual understa