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Computer simulation on study


Physics has mythically been considered a complex topic and the basic foundation in physics education is to ensure conceptual learning of students by using the most effective method. However, researchers noted that many students are not setting a satisfactory conceptual understanding of basic physics in the physics courses (Goldberg & Bendall, 1995). Then, many teachers have found that to be effective learners, students must be actively involved in the classroom. Some traditional methods for involving students have them do board work, practice in problem solving sessions, and gain experiences in understanding the physics in the surrounding environment. Although board work and problem sessions do involve the students, the trend in physics education today is to enhance student understanding through the use of demonstrations and hands-on laboratories; and in addition, to supplement the hands-on experience, teachers are using computers to enhance student learning.

Then, the aim of the research reported in this proposal was to determine whether computer applications, especially, computer simulations are more effective to facilitate conceptual understanding of students on projectile motion than hands-on experiences. This research compares students' conceptual understanding about projectile motion after a laboratory experience based on both hands-on experiment and computer simulation. 

Background of the Study

At high school level ‘Projectile Motion' is considered as the motion of a particle when projected in any direction and subject only to gravitational acceleration. The motion lies entirely in a vertical plane containing the direction of the initial velocity that is the motion is two dimensional. ‘Projectile motion Unit' includes some basic concepts; these are: angle, initial speed, mass, kinematics, acceleration, position, velocity, gravity, motion and air resistance. At that point, many students have difficulties on their conceptual understanding of important concepts of projectile motion (McCloskey, 1982). Although different teaching strategies is used to modify physics education, any research provide ‘a formula for optimal teaching and learning' (Knight, 2002, p.4) more than laboratory experimentation in science teaching.

In today, there are two types of laboratory applications: hands-on laboratory and simulated laboratory experimentations. When operationally defined, a hands-on physics laboratory presents laboratory content in a way that students involve in an active learning with real materials and observe how the physical phenomena occur. Then, hands-on learning provides opportunity for the learners to observe a real world experience and to interact with the situation by using real materials. On the other hand, a simulated physics laboratory means a computer simulation integrated experimentation and includes the use of the computer to simulate dynamic systems of objects in a real or imagined world situation (Bernhard, 2007) and in contrast to the hands-on laboratory; simulated laboratory provides opportunity for the learners to observe a real world experience that are costly, unfeasible or risky to conduct.

Although, a variety of other computer applications have also been developed and used in teaching physics, in terms of laboratory applications, the use of the computer simulations has established to be successful in overcoming misconceptions and in promoting conceptual understanding (Thornton, 1987). Then, the present study tries to obtain management from earlier investigations in order to examine the effectiveness of using computer simulations in laboratory applications for physics education.

Computer Simulations

Researchers stated that using simulated laboratory applications in the instructional contexts should provide opportunities for the learners to promote their understanding in science education (De Jong, Martin, Zamarro, Esquembre, Swaak, & Van Joolingen, 1999). Then, computer simulations are effective tools that can be easily used in the classrooms, with the aim of increasing conceptual understanding (Jimoyiannis & Komis, 2001).

The use of simulations as a learning tool has been extant throughout the history of science teaching and the common use of computers also tended educators to conduct simulated laboratories during science teaching. An educational computer simulation is an instructional tool that provides both educators and learners to relate with an instruction based on computer application of either ‘a scientific model of the real world or a scientific model of theoretical system' (Lunetta, 2003). The three main features of simulation are defined by Gagné as the following (1981; as cited in Lunetta, 2003):

(1) A simulation serves an actual position in which operations are transmitted;

(2) A simulation provides both educators and learners with certain controls over the experimental position;

(3) A simulation disregards defined distracting variables which are inappropriate or unimportant for the particular instructional goals

According to Lunetta (2003), there are two main processing steps during assessing simulated laboratory application. In the first step, each individual or each group in the laboratory conducts the simulation without explanations of directional of the instructor. Then, the instructor administers a worksheet related with the phenomena on the simulation and the worksheet includes questions that want students to describe the progress of the observations made during the simulation and to draw conclusions.

With the common use of both the Internet and computer technologies in educational instruction, it was inevitable for both researchers and educators to integrate computer simulations in the science learning and teaching. The effects of computer simulations on higher learning outcomes have been proved and accepted by many researchers, for example, forming the connection between concrete and abstract reasoning. In addition, use of computer simulations makes complex systems reachable for students with different ages, abilities, and learning levels (De Jong et al., 1999). The emphasis of using computer simulations in laboratory environment is on experiences, rather than explanations. This does not mean that the explanations are not important; however, the main aim of the use of simulated laboratory environments is to promote experiential learning.

As a result, the computer simulations are designed to provide empirical data, as well as a visual representation/experience of the data in the form of real-time graphs, to initiate cognitive conflict and to stimulate group discussion of the concepts involved.

Purpose of the Study

In traditional approach, there are basically three stage processes to teach projectile motion; firstly, relevant knowledge is presented; secondly, sample solutions are shown in the textbook or on the blackboard; and then, students practice solving similar problems (Tynjälä, 1999). The combination of three stage process unfortunately provides a little students' conceptual understanding on related topic, and they do not really understand the important concepts.

On the other hand, a constructivist approach is more likely to help students deal with their conceptual understanding by connecting the new and old concepts and the teacher's role is to provide a rich environment where satisfactory connections between these new concepts and their prior knowledge can be made (Tynjälä, 1999). On that view, laboratory experiments have an important role on providing this connection and a well developed and realistic simulation can provide the visual presentation of a live experiment.

This study aimed at exploring effectiveness of simulated laboratory experimentation as a laboratory application in physics education. Specifically, the effectiveness of learning projectile motion with computer simulations being used as laboratory experience was determined when compared with hands-on experience.

Research Question

The main purpose of this experimental research project is to evaluate the effectiveness of the computer simulations in physics instruction and learning. This study, therefore, required to address the following research question:

  • What is the effect of using computer simulations as laboratory experimentation compared to using hands-on experimentation on students' conceptual understanding of projectile motion in the physics classroom?

    Studies conducted on comparing computer simulated laboratory experimentation with hands-on laboratory experimentation revealed that students that are instructed in simulated laboratory environment performed higher than students that are instructed in hands-on experiment environment on junior high school students' understanding of volume displacement (Choi and Gennaro, 1987), and for this study, I expect that students exposed to the simulated laboratory experimentation would score significantly higher on the conceptual understanding of projectile motion measures than students exposed to hands-on laboratory experimentation.

    Significance and Need of the Study

    Student's specific conceptual and reasoning difficulties have clearly characterized in projectile motion and, with the appropriate use of simulated laboratory environment, physics teaching and learning becomes more interactive, inquiry, collaborative, near fun and engaging. So, examining students understanding of this topic with a previously administered misconception test will assess effectiveness of using simulations.

    A long this time, I have stated about the contributions of the use of computer simulations to support the students' science learning in classrooms; however, there should be some limitations during processing in terms of computer usability skills of both teachers and students and computer numbers for each student. I would try to eliminate these limitations during sample selection.

    As a result, my justification for investigating this study is that the increasingly widespread availability of computers in high schools makes them an attractive alternative for instruction; and also, the widespread availability of Internet technology increases the use of computer simulations in physics instructions. There are so many free, useful simulations on the Internet and teachers can easily get access to the free instructional simulation websites. However, if we consider laboratory applications in Turkey, for doing a hands-on experiment, it is hard to find all necessary materials in the school laboratory.  Moreover, think that you find the all necessary materials for one experiment, number of materials commonly inadequate for applying group activities. Then, I believe, using computer simulations for laboratory science instruction will provide some advantages such as; safety, cost-efficiency, minimization of flexible, rapid, and dynamic data displays to teaching and learning. Moreover, this research study can useful and helpful not only for teachers and researchers, but also for simulation developers in terms of describing the relationship between science and technology and the effective use of them together.