How simulation-based education is transforming STEM disciplines

Written on 08/07/2021

Most people remember their science classes in school or college as one of the most challenging of their life as students. Not only because the concepts and subjects were difficult, but because this material was presented in a way that wasn’t always in line with the different ways people incorporate knowledge.

But it doesn’t always have to be this way. A student can assimilate anything by having the motivation and access to engaging learning experiences. Efficient teaching in STEM areas depends a lot on the deployment of attractive subjects that captivate the attention of students and require their participation to connect knowledge and experience. In this article we explore how virtual simulations through software represent a new technological proposal that responds to these problems.

Making sense to a complex world.

Offering students the knowledge and skills needed to perform successfully in the world of work is at the core of technical and higher education, but what happens when really abstract contents need to be explained and applied? The growing popularity of “science careers” magnified these issues, this time putting students in the spotlight of the challenges faced by educational institutions aiming to train well-prepared students.

A particularly difficult issue is the incorporation of exploratory learning into courses, a teaching method that involves students asking and answering their own research questions. This approach where students must solve concrete problems from abstract concepts is vital for a better understanding of Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, disciplines grouped as STEM, which can be studied at all educational levels, from preschool or postdoctoral.

A meta-analytic study on the use of simulations on STEM teaching in primary and secondary education showed that visualizing what happens when modifying the parameters and conditions of a system in real time helps cement relevant concepts. “With simulations, students can manipulate variables and see the results of multiple experiments without actually having to replicate them. Additionally, simulations are more attractive, motivating, and interesting for students especially if the alternative is traditional reading-based instruction”, according to a paper published in the Journal of Educational Technology.

Computer simulations and visualizations in STEM

It is important to differentiate simulations from other computer-powered learning tools. By simulation we mean interactive programs or visualizations used to explore hypothetical or real-world phenomena and systems. A simulation can be transformed into a game if clear goals and rewards for reaching them are defined (they can be points, additional content, or virtual currencies, for example).

Unlike a game, a simulation is typically designed so that its users focus on the behaviors or process of a specific phenomenon rather than achieving goals that are not based on learning. And while this difference can be blurred by adding gamification elements, the goal of simulation still is to present a realistic recreation for educational purposes.

On the other hand, a simulation differs from a visualization thanks to the interactive component of the first. A simulation must be built on the real behavior of a scientific or natural phenomenon, giving the user the possibility of managing input and output parameters that will model a process. It is this interactive that makes the student connect with the observed phenomenon as a participant and controller of the variables that define its result.

The use of software, simulation tools, and serious games to enrich the teaching process is known as Simulation-Based Education (SBE). Recent advances in the capacity and ubiquity of tools such as cell phones or laptops have allowed the use of novel and innovative methodologies that make use of the SBE to strengthen student learning

Gamification and serious games

Serious games are those that have purpose other than entertainment. They are used to promote learning and behavior changes in areas such as education, health, marketing, business and industries, combining teaching strategies with specific gaming elements, such as scores, rewards and new challenges.

“Wherever there is a system, it can be transformed into a game and mechanisms that allow learning about its complexities in an engaging, captivating and entertaining way.” Says Tim Marsh from Griffith University, in his paper Games Are Becoming Serious Bussiness.

We know that games and simulations require the mental and physical concentration of users in the development of practical skills, since they force them to make decisions, define priorities and solve problems. These competencies and skills match the requirements of professional careers and academic programs in technology and science. “Video games can support the STEM education from elementary school to college by training skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategy building, problem solving, and teamwork”, says Chitra Sethi, editor of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

We must not forget that this is the generation of digital natives, people who quickly absorb information in shorter spans, who are used to immediate responses and feedback, and who seek to actively participate in their own education. For them learning sciences should be more than receiving formulas or data from teachers: they seek to experiment, visualize and know the processes and results, thus building their own knowledge. Students of this generation need to integrate learning experiences into the social, technological and communicational ecosystem in which they are immersed.

Educators and institutes can create serious games and eLearning experiences to support the concepts of their curriculum or directly generate new learning programs that put the student at the center of the educational process. The end result of serious games development is that a user is able to incorporate knowledge in an experiential way and can apply what they learned in the game to real life situations.

10 reasons to incorporate simulation in education

Science, technology, engineering and math students must grapple with complex models of systems that exist in real life. Regardless of whether these models refer to infrastructure, telecommunications networks, computer systems or industrial production chains, STEM students need specialized knowledge to make informed decisions about complex systems that often involve thousands of interactions and variables with different impacts.

The new possibilities opened up by the use of simulations in education and training bring a new spectrum of perception and meaning to the teaching process of STEM disciplines, with tools and experiences that a few decades ago were relegated to fiction.

And is it that modern educational models distinguish different learning styles: verbal, visual, musical/auditory, kinesic, logical/mathematical, social, solitary and a combination of above. Each person is different and may show predisposition for one style over another at different stages of their life. Taking this into account, it is easy to project how the use of simulations provides new tools in education training, facilitating the process for people with different learning styles and bringing users closer to experiences that blur the line between the real and virtual world, reducing also the risk and costs of tradicional training.

  1. Increase student interest and involvement in classes.
    Most people learn faster with practice. The use of SBE provide the opportunity to get to work in a structured and interactive way. Users can replicate experiments in real time, at their own pace, consistently and without pressure from teachers or supervisors.

  2. Real experiences.
    One of the main reasons traditional STEM education doesn't always work has to do with the lack of realistic experiences on the abstract concepts being studied. When these concepts are implemented in simulations, students can get a better idea of how these concepts work.

  3. Better knowledge retention.
    Another difficulty that a student may face lies in their intrinsic ability to retain complex and abstract information. By using simulations, students are able to apply this information in a practical way in contexts that are very close to real situations, allowing them to better understand what they need to do, facilitating a quick and effective retention of knowledge.

Some topics can be very challenging and have a very steep learning curve, even with the right education. The hands-on learning offered by simulation-based education gives users insight into how procedures are expected to flow and how to deal with unexpected results, receiving constant feedback from the device, allowing the user to focus their attention and memory on comprehensive processes rather than worrying about learning each step separately.

  1. Immediate Feedback.
    Students are not only able to observe the results of a simulation in real time. Furthermore, they can instantly verify how modifying variables can alter the results, giving a better idea how experiments are affected by them. By incorporating gamification as an element of interactivity, the user can know in real time their performance and areas for improvement, which becomes extremely useful for teachers who use simulation as an evaluation tool.

  2. Safety.
    Some experiments can be very risky for students, fire, electricity or corrosive substances cause teachers to limit the extent of practical experiences or directly avoid them, especially when high supervision is required. A simulation allows students to practice these tasks in controlled environments, reducing the risk of personal injury or damage to the equipment.

  3. Risk Control.
    Educational institutions are always searching for programs that improve the instruction of their students, but are hesitant to take the next step when considering business-level risks. With simulation-based education, it is possible to experiment with new teaching techniques with a low risk associated with poor adoption of methodologies and equipment, facilitating the creation of study environments that would otherwise be difficult to replicate.

On the other hand, education in the fields of biology and medical sciences is often faced with complex ethical dilemmas, such as animal testing, use of polluting materials or consideration for the rights of patients. SBE allows us to approach these experiences through cruelty-free experiments and in an environment of respect and ethics.

  1. Cost Reduction.
    Although the implementation of a simulation may mean an initial cost, the equipment is reusable and in many cases no more hardware is required than a computer or mobile phone. In that sense, the cost of developing simulated experiences is minimal compared to building a professional laboratory. On the other hand, a simulation on the web eliminates the student's need to commute, democratizing access to content as well as reinforcing practice when it is not possible to do face-to-face classes.

  2. Allow multiple users at the same time.
    Whether due to limitations in the availability of laboratory equipment or the need to personalize instruction, certain STEM disciplines have barriers on the number of students who can receive instruction simultaneously. A web simulation can be deployed autonomously on the equipment used by each student, individually recording their results and learning, thus helping to systematize the education of multiple students in parallel.

  3. Facilitates cooperation.
    Regardless of the area, all STEM disciplines present instances where collaboration between peers and specialists from other disciplines is essential. Users in simulation can participate in models that require collaborative work when collaborative elements are incorporated. This cooperation goes beyond the internal functioning of the simulation: thanks to the globalization and massification of distance learning, these experiences are now available to students from different geographical regions and educational institutions, which in turn favors international and university education.

  4. Control of uncertainty of models.
    In STEM, the phenomena and systems under study are subject to high uncertainty and dynamism, largely generated by the human component of said systems. These aspects, which are often difficult to include and learn through traditional analytical models, can benefit from the use of simulation-based methodologies in coordination with other educational techniques that facilitate the understanding of these complex systems.

Towards a new reality in education.

Integrating new technologies into teaching and learning is vital to updating curricula and student outcomes. Some of the obstacles to incorporate SBE into the full spectrum of learning are the apparent cost of technology. The availability of sufficient hardware and software, and the unwillingness of some educators or institutions to take the first step in learning adoption of new pedagogical techniques.

The use of tools designed to facilitate the student experiences not only facilitates critical thinking and creative, flexible, purposeful knowledge-building within the classroom, but also extends the scope of educational sessions for students.

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