Simulation -- a bridge between theory and reality

Ronen, M. & Eliahu, M. (2000) Simulation – a bridge between theory and reality: the
case of electric circuits. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 16, 14-26.
The aim of this study was to examine the role of a simulation as a potential aid that may
help students to bridge the gap between theory and reality in the case of electric circuits.
Research questions
Test the findings in previous studies that indicate that providing learners with specific
assignments in combination with the simulation may have a beneficial effect on the
learning outcome.
The study was performed with 63 pairs of students from four 9th grade classes. Two
teachers in the same urban school taught the classes. For each teacher, one class was
randomly selected as experimental class and the other as a control class. All classes
studied electricity, for two months, with the same books, and performed the same labs
and theoretical practices according to the mandatory national curriculum.
A computer program, DC-Kid (direct current kid), was developed for presenting
simulation-based activities on electric circuits. The program had all the electric
components that a real circuit may have, such as, batteries, voltage sources, resistors,
bulbs, switches, buttons, diodes, fuses, and measuring instruments among others. The
program was introduced to the experimental groups two weeks after classes of the study
of electricity started. After practicing at the school, participants in the experimental
groups were allow to take the program home and practice doing homework assignments
for the following six weeks. All the participants participated in a final theoretical exam
on the same day.
The study took place one week after the theoretical exam. It included eight sessions
conducted with half-classes: four experimental sessions and four control classes. Pairs of
students were presented two different tasks. Task I, required the ability to analyze the
way in which several components are connected by wires and to translate the topology to
a formal representation. For the Task II, four identical light bulbs, a power supply and
wires were available on a table. The teams were challenged to build a real circuit that
will function according to a certain specification, preferably at the first attempt.
The simulation program was available in a computer for the experimental groups but the
researchers did not mention it. The students must suggest if they could use it in solving
the task. The researchers would suggest the computer program if nobody request it.
Fernando Londoño - Annotated Bibliography Lrc 530. Dr. Betts.
Task I. Teams that used the simulations seemed to be more successful that those of the
control group and of the experimental subgroup who did not used the simulation. No
significant difference was found between the experimental sub-group who did not use the
simulation and the control group. The achievements in the experimental teams were
significantly correlated with both exam score and use of the simulation, as two
independent variables, while the use of the simulation seems to be a better predictor of
success than the exam grades. Furthermore, teams that used the simulation spent more
time on this task because they used it to test their hypotheses and correct them when
necessary. Most of the teams that used the simulation arrived to a correct, or a partial,
solution. Moreover, when drawing circuits, some of the teams that did not used the
simulation tended to produce diagrams that were not formal circuits (irregular circuits
like bulb and switches with three contacts or more contacts). In comparison, teams that
used the simulations were obliged to use a correct representation of circuits.
Task II. Within the control group, most of the teams did not succeed at the first attempt.
In addition, many of them were frustrated and some stopped working before the end of
the session. For the experimental group, the use of the simulation was an obvious part of
the working environment for all the teams since the beginning. However, in the creation
of the first diagram all the team had the same misconception of how the circuit should
work. If the simulation was used to test the design, students were confronted with the
misconception and tried to understand their results, then changes their design as needed.
This source of feedback was no present for teams that did not used the simulation during
the design before the first trial. Consequently, teams that used the simulation were much
more successful and confident in their work. The analysis of variance revealed that the
use of computer was a better predictor of success than the exam grades.
According to the authors, it seems that simulations can provide unique advantages for
enhancing students’ understanding of the theoretical principles and for bringing the gap
between the theoretical idealized models, their formal representation and reality. Further
research is needed to determine the most effective ways of integrating simulations into
the curriculum, in addition to other tools already available like real experiments.
Usefulness of the research
This research provides evidence for the use of computers in classroom setting as a tool to
enhance the understanding of subject matter, in this case electric circuits. The use of the
computer simulation was not intended to replace instruction of ‘real teachers’, but to
provide feedback in experimental tasks students had to execute as part of their learning
process about real life situations.
Fernando Londoño - Annotated Bibliography Lrc 530. Dr. Betts.