Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Curriculum Resources: Interactive Science Visualizations

I thought I would take a break from my educational theorizing today and share two science learning websites we've used lately (for those readers who are looking for some more concrete middle school resources).  My son has been taking two great science classes through one of our homeschool learning coops, but we've used these sites at home to reinforce and supplement the hands-on experiments and activities he has been doing in class.

First, he has been doing a class on Cells where they have been looking through the microscope, doing experiments, and making models of cells and their components.  But we found that Sheppard Software's Cell Games is a great review for what he has learned in class, as well as a way to extend his knowledge beyond animal cells to plants and bacteria as well.  These are really well-done visual depictions and short, comprehensible descriptions of the different organelles in each of the three types of cells.  First you learn about each one, then drag the correct label to a picture of each part of the cell.  Once they get them all right, they get to see a little animation, such as a cell dividing.  My one complaint is that I can't really call these games, since there is no random aspects to them, nor any choices besides matching the right items together. But as interactive visual manipulatives, they are really well done.  While his teacher deserves kudos for how well he recalled the names of the organelles of the animal cell (and corrected my pronunciation, since it's been a LOOONG time since I've taken biology), he said that the visualizations was helpful in understanding cell operations.

He has also been taking a class entitled "Mysteries of Geology," which has been focused on learning rock and mineral analysis, and spending time each class applying the theories and definitions they've learned to identify what the mysterious rock and mineral samples the teacher gives them actually are.  Looking to extend his geological concepts, we spent time this afternoon working with "Landform Detective," which is part of The Jason Project's unit on Geology called "Tectonic Fury."  (If you aren't familiar with The Jason Project, you should check them out; they are leaders in developing science curriculum for middle schoolers based on real-world, interactive scenarios--and it is all free online!)

Landform Detective is, once again, not really what I would call a game.  But it is an engaging and effective simulation that teaches how unique landscapes around the globe were formed.  What happens is that the student choses one of 25 landmarks, such as the White Cliffs of Dover or the Grand Canyon, and compares how it looks now to how it looked thousands, millions, or even billions of years ago.  They then have to pick what geological processes--plate tectonics, volcanoes, erosion, glacier movement, etc.--produced that particular landform.  Many of the landmarks involved two or three processes, so they have to put them in the right order AS WELL AS associate them with the right timeframe (some processes require only a thousand years or so, while others took millions or billions).  However, before you think you'll have to get your masters in geology before your children with these simulations--their choices are constrained, usually to three or four options, and they can run simulations before making their final selections to see if each process is getting them towards the final product or not (and how long it takes).  Each stage is done separately, so they have to get the first process and time right before they can proceed to the next, and are given a clue if they choose a wrong answer.  In the end, a real geologist comes and says a little about the place, and the entire animation runs to simulate the entire period of geological activity.

As usual, my words don't do the simulations justice.  All I can say is that they are well-designed and well-executed, and are PERFECT for visual learners like my son.  While he fussed when I first told him we were going to check it out, he sat there and did it for almost an hour and a half straight until he had completed all 25 landforms.  And although it took him about an hour to do the first 15 scenarios, I think it only took him 20 minutes to do the last ten.  So in that first hour, he had really gotten a concept of what processes produced what kinds of effects on the land and which ones had to come before other ones, and he was really able to apply that to answer the last 10 quickly and accurately.  Also, to be perfectly honest, I had a bit more knowledge going in, so I led at least some of the first maybe, 6 or so scenarios, after that, my son was processing the visual information so much more quickly than I was that he was making a choice faster than I could even consider the options, and checking off his selection before I could say, "Do you think we should....?" whatever.

It was a major success in our household, so I recommend it to others wholeheartedly.  But I can't call it a game....

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