How to choose the right model to achieve deep learning

Dr Leila Walker, Head of Product Design at Nano Simbox, explores choosing the right science models for your students as part of her #SER17 Lightning Talk ahead of our Science Educator Residency on 10th and 11th July. 

Supporting students to understand that the world around them is indeed a molecular one has always been a struggle for educators. Students studying science find it hard to make connections between what they see around them and the molecular world they are asked to learn about in the classroom. Learning molecular formula, geometric structure and molecule characteristics that link to its physical and chemical properties, appear too abstract. Attempts by educators to link the molecular world and that around us can seem a step too far for the majority of students to fully comprehend.

© Nano Simbox

© Nano Simbox

Scientists, engineers and science educators use models to simplify and clarify abstract concepts, as well as to develop and explain theories and phenomenon. A virtue of a good model is that it stimulates its users to pose questions that take us beyond our existing understanding and conceptualisation of the science that exists around us. Many researchers have advocated the use of models as enablers of students’ comprehension of the molecular world. In particular, the need to support mental transformation from two-dimensional to three-dimensional representations.

One of the problems that arises while using concrete models is that insufficient emphasis is placed on the fact that models are theory-based simulations of reality. In particular, when applied to chemistry, physical ball and stick models derived from polystyrene spheres and plastic straws are not merely enlargements of the molecules they are intended to represent.

These are analogue models that are used to explain new and abstract concepts. Some of the properties are similar to aspects of the target they are representing. For example, the relative diameter of the spheres represents the size of the different atoms. Other aspects, however, are not reflected in the model. For example, in a ball-and-stick model type, all sticks (straws) are of equal length, while “real” molecular bond lengths are not. Other models focus on different properties of the molecule, thereby creating multiple modes of representing the same molecule to learners.

The choice of model type has an impact on the image students create concerning the ways in which molecules are shaped and how they function in the “real” world. Theoretical scientists, experimentalists and science educators are taking advantage of computerised environments in order to stimulate different model types quickly and efficiently. The development of computerised molecular modelling (CMM) made traditional models less favourable in the late 1960’s. These capabilities have opened the way for advanced research in chemistry and even gained Nobel prizes.

Among the advantages of using innovative technology in science education are the options of providing for individual learning, simulation, graphics, and the demonstration of models of the micro and macro world. Williamson and Abraham, as far back as 1995, studied the effect of computer animations on college student mental models of chemical phenomena. The researchers argued that the animations helped students understand the subject matter better while improving their ability to construct dynamic mental models of chemical processes.

Virtual models (3D models) offer complete manipulation, real-time measurements and the capability of mimicking realistic atomic forces (attractive/repulsive), giving the user a better insight into the molecular world compared to other physical and 2D computer simulation methods. While immersive environments offer virtual models with some of the same benefits of physical models, it is the extended features (e.g. accurate distance representation, computer simulations capability and analysis tools for further investigations) that suggest such environments as effective learning tools for science education. Researchers have reported that highly accurate perceptions of a molecular structure is facilitated by the use of immersive environments in which the user may manipulate and measure important intrinsic information about the structure.

However, as educators we need to take care to not oversimplify learning through isolation. Real-life learning takes place in messy, noisy learning environments. Teaching science and in particular supporting students to relate the molecular world to events and observations in their everyday lives needs to keep this in mind. Choosing models that best depict how molecules look and behave should be chosen over lesser models. In addition, models that are supported by a narrative that places the molecular world into the “real” one should be of first choice.

Storytelling is the most powerful learning tool, having been used since time began to pass on information from one generation to the next. Storytelling in science is no different. Research suggests that narratives are easier to comprehend and learners find them more engaging than traditional logical-scientific communication.

Nano Simbox is a next generation modelling tool for learners of all ages, educators, trainers and researchers. Through bespoke, interactive, simulation of atoms and molecules, users explore the molecular nano-world around us; creating a narrative that links the visible with the invisible. Nano Simbox takes advantage of our ability to learn stories and pass them on. It frames each molecular structure around a storyline based upon 4 key emotional events:

1) creating curiosity from the learner;

2) enabling the learner to take an enquiry approach to learn more;

3) allowing the learner to be creative, using their own imagination to test out ideas of what may happen next; and,

4) gaining resilience through the endeavor to learn new things even when one lead of enquiry may end.

Nano Simbox is a scientifically robust learning tool that closes the gap between the macro and molecular ‘nano’ world. A much needed learning step, if our students are to fully comprehend our world through meaningful scientific lenses.

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