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Anyway, the article discusses a study conducted by Kathy Cabe Trundle (Ohio State University) and Randy Bell (University of Virginia).
Science Daily quote Kathy Cabe Trundle, "The results suggest the use of computer simulations in science classes may be an effective and often less expensive and time-consuming way to teach some science concepts ... Our expectation was that the computer simulation would be at least as effective as direct observation in teaching about moon phases ... When we did our analysis, the simulation was just as effective in teaching two aspects of moon phases, and more effective in a third aspect. So we were excited by that."
The study was split into three groups: One class learned about moon phases using only a computer simulation, one group from nature alone, and a third group from both a computer simulation and nature. Those who used only computer simulations did just as well as others in learning causes of moon phases and shapes of moon phases. But those who used the simulations were actually slightly more likely than others to understand the sequences of moon phases.
As the report authors suggest, the simulation enabled the students to see all of the phases which is not always possible with nature observations (too true in Manchester, where I am based). And as I have observed in my own use of simulations, the approach is able to accelerate the learning process. Simulations offer other advantages too in terms of cost and risk (simulation or standing on the edge of volcanic crater, anyone).
The study suggests that simulation could have uses in other areas of science such as biology. I would also add that the social sciences are also ripe for the use of simulations. I have developed simulations that can be used in the geography curriculum, for instance. History, business studies, environmental studies etc also are good candidates for the simulation treatment. Simulations are particularly useful at explaining complex non-linear topics. They are also useful for cross curricular activities, so our Sustainaville simulation could be used in Citizenship; Personal Social Health Education, Business Studies, Geography and Science.
All we need now is for educators to take one small step for their teaching and one giant leap for educational attainment.