Sunday, November 02, 2008
Complexity and Ambiguity
One virtual science lab system appearing on the market now attempts to help students to understand the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work by using an animated cartoon figure, an "avatar" in their words.
The avatar discusses problems with an experiment and asks about how to resolve them.
The fact that this approach uses audio, the avatar's voice, and a semblance of a person does not make this approach significantly different from a discussion in print of the same material. It's just an animated book. In either form, these canned examples can, at best, be considered an introduction to the topic.
Students must experience complexity and ambiguity for themselves. The best such experience will always involve students' own personal data taken from the real world and not from a simulation.
The experience is necessary but not sufficient. Without post-lab questioning and discussion, the nature of science may not be noticed by most students. Students should be asked whether science is exact, what science can infer about unseen objects and phenomena, whether different scientists will necessarily come to the same conclusions from the same data, and so on. They also should explain their answers.
Simulations do not lead to this sort of questioning. Real experiments are available both through hands-on "kitchen" labs and in virtual form. You don't have to resort to simulations for reasons of cost, safety, or time (or any other similar reason).
If a science lab experience really has the purpose of illuminating the nature of science, of bolstering scientific reasoning, and of illustrating the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, then students must engage the real world and think about both during and after their work.
Don't waste your students' lab time on fake science.
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