Monday, October 13, 2008

Simulations Aren't Science

I've finally had enough. I'm tired of seeing teachers use simulations as substitutes for science labs.

As a scientist, I would like to see people learn about science, not memorize definitions, formulas, and laws. The only way to learn science is to do it. Science requires investigating the real world, not some made-up world created by algorithms.

Learn science instead of learning about science.

This issue has become even more urgent lately because of the expansion of online courses. Many purveyors of online courses use simulations in their science courses in place of real science investigations or "labs." By so doing, they cheat their students of a wonderful opportunity to find out about science and to begin learning how to think as scientists do. They also are robbing our country of its science future. Basically, they are being unpatriotic.

But, many protest, science labs require expensive equipment, fancy facilities, lots of time, safety rules, and other stuff that many students don't have. What are we to do about those in poor rural areas and underserved urban neighborhoods? I've visited these locations around the country myself and know this problem. You can do great science without all of that fancy stuff. Here are the five ways in which people have provided science experience in online courses.

1. "kitchen" labs (can do at home with readily available materials)
2. investigation of large online scientific databases (like DNA)
3. remote real-time experiments (use programmable equipment, e.g. MIT's iLabs)
4. prerecorded real experiments (with highly interactive software for personal data collection)
5. simulated labs (using algorithms to generate data, phenomena, and objects)

The first four are valid. The fifth is not!

America's Lab ReportFor an authority on this analysis, take time to read America's Lab Report. You can read it online for free. It's fairly long, but you can just read the executive summary. The National Research Council of the National Academies wrote it. They define a science lab experience as follows.
“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”
Having this experience instead of simulations creates the opportunity for students to develop an "understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work." According to America's Lab Report, only the real thing allows you to achieve this crucial goal of science education.

Real experiments also allow you to understand the nature of science and to develop scientific reasoning skills better than the fake simulated labs do.

I urge everyone who cares about our future to oppose the use of simulated labs in science courses as substitutes for real labs. The first four items in the list above provide plenty of opportunity for doing science without high cost, safety problems, or lengthy times.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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