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Ask an expert: Computer simulations stimulate students

October 12, 2000
Web posted at: 1:06 PM EDT (1706 GMT)

Question: How did you become interested in designing computer simulations?

Answer: Before personal computers were available, I became excited by the power of simulations to engage students in thinking about complex phenomena in our lives. As a former high school writing teacher, I believed that students could never write well about something until they had thought well about it. I found that simulations were opportunities to work with students on how to think well about fairly complex matters.

For example, I was once involved in a study of students' problem-solving strategies in which we used simulated court cases to learn how students can integrate new information into their thinking once they have formulated an hypothesis. A year or so later, I wrote an economic simulation about the growth of a small business and the many decisions involved in that process.

About that time, people at Abt Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, produced an elaborate educational simulation about the industrial revolution in England. Students in a classroom would take on a variety of roles and act them out to discover through solving problems what the industrial revolution was all about. I was impressed with the learning that resulted from this kind of simulation. I also realized that it was the kind of learning that would never be forgotten.

When personal computers came along, I realized that their value in engaging students in worthwhile simulations was tremendous. I was excited by the first Oregon Trail simulation and by the Search series of simulations created by Tom Snyder. These relatively simple computer simulations presented on limited computers had great power to stimulate students' thinking and problem-solving.

I had a wonderful opportunity to work with a team of Harvard Education School faculty and public school teachers to create a computer-based simulation of Irish immigration to the United States during the mid-19th century. In this simulation, students working in small teams had to select an Irish family from a real ship's list. Their task was to enable that family to survive for 10 years in the context of the harsh social and economic conditions that they faced in Boston at that time. When teachers began to use this simulation, I was astonished by the positive impact it had on teachers and students and the depth of valuable learning that resulted. Today, many years after it was created, this simulation is still used by teachers and even has its own Web site (see below).

Henry F. Olds is a senior software designer for Riverdeep Interactive Learning, which is a source for math and science simulations.

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Riverdeep Interactive Learning

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