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Can Simulations Replace Labs?

Framing Issues Paper

Andrew Yeung

University of British Columbia

ETEC 533 – 66A


Traditional instruction has conditioned learners into passive recipients versus active
constructors of knowledge. From the Auto-e-ography, 21st century students growing up in the
technological era replace paper with digital media, learning to type before handwrite. From the
Videos Cases, devices like graphing calculators provide multiple functionality, serving as both
automation and distraction. Simulations bypass measurements enabling real-time visualization
and risk-free interactivity. Accessibility is becoming less of an issue with regular home internet
minimizing gender divide. Inquiry describes learning as construction over transmission, playing
without necessarily knowing answers beforehand. From the Interview, technology is everywhere
able to “search up the world” at learner fingertips, and versatile ranging from instruction to
administration. Not knowing what media work under which circumstances, “trial and error”
promotes collaborative problem solving.

Beginning with an issue that students do not understand orbital wave functions, the
Module A lessons introduced how STEM misconceptions arose from static pictures, for example
abstracting individual lobes as orbitals surrounded by walls rather than probability distributions.
Learners believing electrons orbit the Bohr model do not experience sufficient cognitive
dissonance with electron configuration hotel analogies to adopt different frameworks. However
conducting preliminary searches with keywords ‘orbital wave functions’ was expectedly much
too specific. Perusing through CiteULike folders 2 and 7 on Achievement Effectiveness Learning
and Teachers and Educational Technology respectively, articles described how interactive
simulations not only help visualize electron diagrams, but could potentially replace labs
altogether. Subsequent resources were collected using revised keywords ‘Chemistry interactive
simulations’ from UBC Summon and Google Scholar, restricting to primary articles with filter
Since 2016 upon recommendation for recent papers. Selected articles balance mainstream PhET
with other software, framing the issue: To what extent can interactive simulations promote
engaged exploration in Chemistry?

1) Finkelstein, N. D., Perkins, K. K., Adams, W., Kohl, P., & Podolefsky, N. (2005,
September). Can computer simulations replace real equipment in undergraduate
laboratories?. In AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 790, No. 1, pp. 101-104). AIP.

Computers augment lectures providing data acquisition tools with real-time display.
Simulations, representations and animations uniquely scaffold visual exploration, providing
interactivities for self-directed learning and dynamic just-in-time support to challenge existing
understandings. By skipping repetition, intrinsic scaffolding restricts complexity to direct
attention minimizing cognitive overload. Software including Molecular Workbench, VisChem
and PhET vary in effectiveness remediating persistent misconceptions, whose methodology
differs between audio/visual, urban/rural, calculations/multimodal learners. Students familiar
with text and calculations do not seek assistance upon browser issues to avoid downloading extra
programs. Finkelstein et al. (2005) pose the question whether interactive simulations can replace
physical labs, experimenting with 200 students divided into three groups: real equipment, PhET
Circuit Construction and control without Science background. Following a genuine inquiry
approach emphasizing discovery over verification, participants were cumulatively assessed with
hands-on undergraduate exercises, where the simulation functioned as effective substitute
decreasing response times and improving circuit accuracy given limited context of fifteen
introductory course sections. Concerns around experiencing disconnect lacking manual

application remain valid, believing programmed software does not represent actual life. Time
issues, training familiarity and pedagogical content knowledge require further consideration to
maximize student ownership with (a)synchronous interactions giving each software unique

2) Stieff, M., & Wilensky, U. (2003). Connected chemistry—incorporating interactive

simulations into the chemistry classroom. Journal of Science Education and
Technology, 12(3), 285-302.

Simulations have been used in different contexts: lecture, individual, group inquiry,
homework, lab, all encouraging sense-making reasoning across multiple representations from
symbolic to particle to macroscopic. Despite successes with 4M:Chem and eChem software,
most first generation applications present Science as black-boxes. Threshold concepts like
atomic theory result in misconceptions stemming from indirect observations, incorrectly
translating molecular interactions to emergent phenomena. Stieff and Wilensky (2003)
conducted interviews with six participants each having learned equilibrium, using NetLogo to
open Science as glass-boxes requiring coding background. Playing freely with variables
discouraged memorization and algorithmic problem solving, inferring conceptual understandings
with critical thinking. Despite seemingly correct responses, unstable misconceptions of equal
reactant product concentrations were defended linking sound arguments until visualizing
phenomena on multiple levels. Interviewees used the Connected Chemistry platform to generate
hypotheses and test predictions with trial and error, serving as replacement laboratory simulator.
Simulations can flexibly be used to introduce, build, reinforce or review scenarios without overly
constraining exploration and posing what if extensions. Pedagogical goals incorporate authentic
scientific inquiry, making students take responsibility for developing conceptual understandings
and everyday connections, with interactivities leveraging challenges to supplement
demonstrations, discussions and laboratories.

3) Pedretti, E., Mayer‐Smith, J., & Woodrow, J. (1998). Technology, text, and talk:
Students' perspectives on teaching and learning in a technology‐enhanced secondary
science classroom. Science Education, 82(5), 569-589.

Educational technology integration relies on sociocultural perspectives of users and

environments, differentiating effects with technology during active engagement and of
technology transferring lasting consequences. Simulations enable self-paced learning, moving
autonomy back to students as educator roles shift towards facilitator, guide and helper. Learners
exchange passive behaviours like sitting, watching, listening, following directions with
independence, initiative, building knowledge communities using technology, text and talk.
Beliefs of perceived usefulness and pedagogical compatibility affect intention and success,
determining whether simulations are better precursors than labs incorporating trial-ability and
observability features. Examining simulations versus text-based controls must reflect upon
implementation fidelity to describe how closely original structure was adhered in process and
response under both optimal conditions and classroom messiness. Although simulations using
culturally familiar icons were more effective than symbols, researchers acknowledge how
technology cannot entirely replace laboratories, viewing simulations as enhancement not

substitute. By alternating simulations with intervening lessons, students drive activity as learning
agent providing space to think, cognitively efficient to support comprehension across contexts.

4) Lawrie, G. A., Schultz, M., Bailey, C. H., Al Mamun, M. A., Micallef, A. S., Williams,
M., & Wright, A. H. (2016). Development of scaffolded online modules to support self-
regulated learning in chemistry concepts. In Technology and assessment strategies for
improving student learning in chemistry (pp. 1-21). American Chemical Society.

PhET simulations initially geared towards Physics now branch over to Chemistry,
Biology and Math, enabling self-guided exploration with minimal teacher presence given
implicit challenges. The game-like animations require considerable investment, being unrealistic
for instructors to modify underlying code. Flexibility arises from running through standard
browsers anywhere in the world moving from java to html. Interactivities undergo extensive
iterations through usability interviews to enhance interpretation and engagement. Simulations
provide active environments for developing robust knowledge, with immediate feedback
permitting cause effect reasoning and quantitative tools for accommodating wider backgrounds.
While PhET activities can be powerful, interactivities do not automatically benefit with
immersion possibly over- or under-simulating learning outcomes. Interactions merely guide
personal questioning with common vocabulary as designs slow time constraining focus like
experts remove unnecessary details. Simulations coupled with labs and homework worked best,
favouring visualization over blind memorization or manipulating formula without understanding.
Simulations make visible the invisible, scaffolding mental frameworks avoiding extremes
between heavy guidance and pure discovery. Heavy guidance limits engagement, forcing classes
to investigate and deduce answers with little transfer and retention. Likewise pure discovery
while promising can be overwhelming, confusing directions making false starts not knowing
what is important. Simulations merely augment lab engagement as students build knowledge
from a main ideas framework. Learning is thinking and not just doing, moving beyond student
mode which only leads to answers.

Traditional instruction has conditioned student passivity, rarely exploring bounds

awaiting questions. Irreplaceable practical work motivates theory connections exposing scientific
method, growing familiarity with physical equipment recording observations, taking
measurements and drawing conclusions. Technology belief influences uptake, adopting
particular media for assessment of modern skills: critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity
and collaboration. Simulations offer free-play environments with some degree of unpredictability
to recreate complex phenomena, complementing labs with accessible support in how technology
is used. Especially when real equipment is unavailable, simulations provide alternatives to
manipulate variables otherwise impossible, while requiring ongoing hardware/software
maintenance costs. Evaluations of simulation learning are difficult to quantify given open-
endedness of Science requiring further research. Nearly independent of platform and technical
jargon, simulations can range from boring, frustrating, misleading to enjoyable, engaging,
educational. Students cannot make sense from just watching, but must actively interact
complementing lab work through self-driven exploration. Open conceptual questions trigger
productive inquiry, whose goal is to model authentic research, scaffolding challenges to elicit
appropriate engagement mode, conceptualizing ideas to construct appropriate private universes.