Advances in high power computing have made available computer simulations which can mimic science laboratory procedures. Substitution of hands-on & minds-on science laboratory classes with computer simulations present several benefits ranging from reduced costs, elimination of hazardous waste and broader student access to science programs. However, these benefits come at a great cost to our youth. We at WHY SCIENCE are passionate about computer simulations and agree with the statements put forth in the American Chemical Society Position Statement on Computer Simulations in Academic Laboratories. This document provides a clear insight into the nature of this cost. An essential part of learning science is to use the senses to interact with, and understand the culture and practice of science. When students

  • directly experience chemicals for experiments,
  • investigate properties by observing, touching and feeling the products they make,
  • strategize on what instruments they should use to investigate a problem, and,
  • build an apparatus to investigate problems,

they engage and develop their creative and cognitive abilities for life-long scientific discovery and problem solving. Since simulations, by their very nature do not involve contact with chemicals or lab equipment, they cannot be considered as an equivalent replacement for the hands-on & minds-on experiences in science laboratory classes.

Don’t rely on computer simulation as a primary pedagogical tool for teaching science, because there is no evidence to support computer simulation’s efficacy as compared with hands-on & minds-on activities in promoting student creativity and problem-solving [See references in the ACS Positions Statement]. Thus the increasing use of computer simulations in K-12 education is distressing because it alone does not develop 21st Century Skills.

Developing 21st Century skills that a high school graduate can use in any STEM discipline they choose to study in college requires many hands-on & minds-on experiences that can be found in K-12 science laboratory classes, structured after-school academic programs, and well-conceived science fair projects. Thus in all grades, learning science and problem solving through hands-on & minds-on activities becomes something that students will enjoy doing and may choose as a career path for the pursuit of happiness.


7 Responses to Computer Simulations Don’t Teach 21st Century Skills

  1. Bev says:

    Great points in this article! Thanks for pointing out that hands-on minds-n does not include video or computer simulations!

  2. Ener Hax says:

    Great link and again showing that multiple modes of engagement teach the best. Simulations are simply another channel and should not be the only one, unless that is all you have. When teaching a college Geology course, I would get an AV cart and load it up with items from the unused Geology lab and take them to class. Even though this course had no formal lab, students lit up when they had the chance to play with samples.

    I also do virtual world “field trip” activities now as just another means to engage students.

  3. Bev and Ener Hax thank you for your posts. Your geology story is a great example of hands-on, minds-on teaching and learning, and not just relying on computers as a crutch. Thanks for engaging !

  4. As retired educators, my husband and I so firmly believe in the value and necessity of tactile science experimentation for learning and appreciating scientific concepts that we converted our belief into a business that today produces LabPaqs to provide hands-on learning opportunities for online science students. Simulations are helpful in demonstrating experiments that are too hazardous or costly for students to personally perform. However, the vast majority of science concepts can be easily demonstrated via experiments designed on safe and affordable micro-scale chemistry principles.

  5. Thanks Linda! That’s exactly why our program WHY PLASTICS? was created! Thanks for your comment.

  6. I do agree with the view that computer simulations are not a substitute for hands-on laboratory experience. In our corrosion domain this is true when we use prediction of corrosion rate of materials to choose suitable materials for corrosive environments in process plants. The level of uncertainties involved in such analysis should be known to decide on the utility of simulation to study the real world problems. Simulation can be a starter, not the substitute analysis/assessment for the areas with scarcity of quality data.

  7. Thank you Manickam for your post! Your corrosion story is an excellent example of how complex engineering problems are usually solved. Thank you!

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