Advanced Computing for Science Education (ACSE)

ACSE Project Description

Certain aspects of scientific reasoning that are difficult for students to learn with traditional lecture and textbook materials may be facilitated by computer-based learning environments. Two examples are understanding complex time-varying processes and planning an investigation to discover the mechanisms of such processes. The Advanced Computing for Science Education (ACSE) project has designed, built, and assessed a multi-media science learning environment to address the teaching of these skills.

This ACSE software system provides the lesson author with a structured document framework and a set of tools that facilitate the construction of science lessons containing text, still graphics, movies, and simulations. The system provides the student with tools for navigating through the lesson, viewing the movies, and manipulating and running the simulations.

Movies include any dynamic presentations that are the same each time they are viewed, e.g., animations, videos, and time-lapse photography. Simulations include any graphics, tables or other output generated under programmatic control of the student. Simulation outcomes are subject to changes the student makes, and thus may be different each time they are viewed. We hypothesize that movies, in particular, should improve students' understanding of time varying processes, while simulations should exercise and improve students skills in planning and carrying out investigations.

In typical simulation-based learning systems, the program itself is hidden from the user. This is a natural choice, because the science that is imbedded in that simulation is a very small portion of the overall program, and it is not organized in a manner that would be readily understood by the science student. A set of controls are provided that permit the student to manipulate certain well chosen parameters and see the results.

ACSE is distinguished from these typical systems in the way the simulation is integrated with other lesson contents. Selected pieces of the simulation are interspersed throughout the lesson in a manner that is not unlike the use of mathematical formulas in a textbook. These small pieces of the simulation are chosen because they describe the essential science that is embedded within the much larger program. The program elements are provided in the context of explanatory materials, and irrelevant details are hidden.

The student manipulates the simulation by directly modifying these program elements. A full featured novice programming environment is provided to support this activity. Thus the student is afforded the full expressive power of a programming language. This permits the student to investigate the simulation by making structural changes -- those that involve modifying or replacing algorithms -- in addition to the kinds of parametric changes that are permitted in traditional simulation systems.

A lesson in the ACSE environment is called a Volume. The Volume is displayed in a typical Macintosh window with scroll bars along the right and bottom edges. In addition to a main content area, there are panels at the left edge for a table of contents, a glossary, and a page indicator. A toolbar appears along the top of the window, with tools for navigation.

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