A computer simulation is a program which attempts to mimic a real-life scenario. Examples of their use within the classroom are numerous – music composition software, on-screen science experiments and on-screen interactive geography diagrams for instance – however it’s easy to overlook the need to actually teach children about their role in the real world and how to realise that they do have their limitations as well as their benefits.
For these reasons I always do a few sessions with Year 3 to ensure that they fully appreciate what exactly simulations are, how to use them effectively and how to evaluate their usefulness.
One of the more popular lessons I do is based around exploring vehicle simulators.
I begin by briefly discussing their uses with the children – notably how they let people try things out which would be too: difficult, expensive or dangerous to do in real-life. To demonstrate this, I let the children explore this hot air balloon simulation where they are challenged to use the controls to pilot it across the screen carefully without hitting any obstacles – so turning the burner on to make it rise and releasing the air (venting it) to make it fall. This is quite an accessible simulation for the children and once they have completed the ‘Easy’ level once I stop them all to get them to evaluate their experience so far before then letting them go on to the medium and hard levels. This involves me asking them a variety of questions to prompt their evaluation skills: In what ways was this simulation realistic? (the graphics use sensible proportions/colours to make them look real) In what ways was this simulation not realistic? (lack of people and animation with the environment it was flying in) What are the benefits of flying a hot air balloon on the computer compared to do so in real life? (no injury or damage is caused if you crash on the computer)
The next simulation I show them is more challenging and perhaps a little more relevant to their everyday lives – the Parking Perfection simulator from the Peugeot website. In this they just have to use the arrow keys on their keyboard to safely park an on-screen car safely in four different positions without hitting any other cars. This is much easier said than done however, and many children soon realise that steering and manoeuvring a car is much harder than they originally thought, and they begin to appreciate why most people need lots of lessons before they can pass their driving test!
The children always enjoy using these two simulations whenever I do this lesson and I think it works well to help them understand a bit better what the purposes of computer simulations are.