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Computational science has the potential to change the content and method of education, bringing a more dynamic, learner-centered focus to science and mathematics.
For instance, teachers can use a new Web-based exploration environment with students to reduce the hysteria surrounding the recent swine flu epidemic. By giving students the ability to "see" the effect of increasing hygienic habits, or the effective use of vaccines, or timely treatment by doctors with medicine, any student can get a positive sense of how models can be used to understand science. They also come away with practical knowledge of a timely world event.
Harnessing the Excitement of Discovery
At Shodor we've developed a number of learning environments that harness the power of interactive computing to open new ways of seeing the world by modeling the world. The goal is to enable all teachers and students to experience the excitement of discovery, the power of inquiry, and the joy of learning.
Chief among the resources are the tools from Shodor's courseware Interactivate, which is free and fully Web accessible. For example, consider the difference between a static graph of a cosine function and the power of representation offered by Function Flyer. Instead of staring at a "dead" object, when you enter the function into the Flyer, every constant automatically becomes an adjustable parameter with a color-coded slider so that you can see the effect of changing the amplitude, phase, frequency, or bias. With almost no training, any student can take any function and transform their learning from passive to active.
Models and simulations are changing the topics of math and science education, enabling middle and high school students to study the dynamics of ecology, nanoscience, astronomy, and biology.
Looking at SimSurface, one of the MASTER Tools from Shodor, students can see into the atomic regime and study how crystals form and how one material is stronger than another. Young explorers can change the forces on the walls and the number of charges, and they can even experiment with different cooling schedules, all of which would have been considered advanced graduate experiments only a few years ago.
Another tool, GalaxSee, allows students to create their own models of galaxies. These activities open up the cosmos to interactive exploration to study everything from planetary orbits to the formation of galaxies. Still other models explore many aspects of environmental science, including surface water runoff, the carbon cycle, and smog photochemistry.
All of these materials fully align with national and state math and science standards so that these explorations can be incorporated into existing curricula.
Real Understanding Through a Virtual World
The interactive learning that these models and tools promote encourages mastery of the basics of quantitative reasoning: fractions, decimals, percents and ratios, and reading and interpreting graphs. The resulting computational thinking allows students to look at new ways of learning and visualizing the world. Students can deal directly with computational models and change the virtual world that they have entered.
Computation in the sciences has become the new microscope or telescope, enabling us to extend our limited powers of observation to better understand—through modeling—the world around us. Many more examples across all areas and education levels are available through Shodor and through the National Science Digital Library.
Robert Panoff is executive director of Shodor, a nonprofit foundation that provides teachers and students resources for improving math and science education through modeling and simulation technologies.
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