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Is Simulation as Good as Real Life?

We were planning new smart classrooms when I was at the University of Rhode Island a few years ago. One of the rooms we planned to renovate was a chemistry lab. I asked the chair of chemistry, "Why have a wet lab? Why not work with simulations?" He told me "Students need to see the results of mistakes. People learn from mistakes that have real consequences." We stayed with plans for a wet lab.

Authentic learning is real-life learning. The chemistry chair understood that if students experienced the results--the smells, sounds, sights--of a badly designed experiment they would carry that lesson with them very vividly into their next attempt to create an experiment.

Sherry Turkle of MIT just published Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT Press) and was recently interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education ( In the interview, she made this comment: "There's a generation that is growing up with the computer as an appliance, and they truly have no understanding of how it works. In my book, I tell the story of a girl who was a power player of the game Sim City. She talked to me about her "David Letterman Top Ten Rules of Sim City," and rule number 6 was "Raising taxes leads to riots" because when she did that, that happened in the game. She didn't understand that if I had programmed that computer, raising taxes would've led to more social services and greater social harmony. She was drawing a set of conclusions about how the world worked based on the simulation. The trouble with that was not that she was using the simulation, but that the simulation wasn't transparent to her."

MIT works hard to create a way for its undergraduate students to better understand the research carried out by graduate students and faculty. One way to make complex research available to undergraduates is to visualize it. Seeing something happen is within grasp; understanding the equations behind that something is usually not.

But, how do you visualize something as complicated as, say, a protein molecule? Here, the wet lab response no longer applies. At the molecular level, a visual simulation may be more authentic than any other way to see or understand how a molecule is structured. MIT's StarBiochem application allows undergraduate students to see the structure of molecules, accurately represented, and from various perspectives (

The students can adjust the application to highlight different elements in the molecule to help them work through the structural elements. I sat with Chuck Shubert at MIT, lead of the Star Group, while he adjusted the application so that I saw before my wondering eyes the double helix appear! This is a rendering of a molecule, not a living authentic experience, but it's as close to authentic as we'll come for the moment.

Another example of simulation that clarifies the issues Sherry Turkle brings up is the Astronaut Motion in Micro Gravity project (, a collaboration between the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology. As I talked with the collaborators on this project, Professor Dava Newman and Dr. Violeta Ivanova, we worked through the terms animation, visualization, and simulation.

In the earliest efforts by Professor Newman to show her undergraduate students how astronauts learn to move in a micro-gravity situation, say, in the space station, she was able to show various movements that illustrated what the astronauts had to learn. This way, she gave life to the physics behind the movements: Astronauts learn how to move their legs and arms in non-intuitive ways to reposition themselves along an axis.

But, how do we move from an application that merely illustrates movements to something students could use in an experimental way to control those movements? In other words, how do we move from animation to simulation? If simulation is achieved by these collaborators at MIT, then students can alter terms of physics equations and see the result. They may not be able to do the physics themselves as freshmen or sophomores, but they can see the results of changing equations in a reality-based simulation.

Being able to see and experience processes and realities that are impossible to experience otherwise is one of many contributions to learning enabled by information technology. Maybe the question is not whether simulations lead to misinterpretation, as with the young woman who thought that raising taxes always leads to riots, but whether simulations can take us to another level of reality: accurately seeing what would be impossible otherwise.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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