In an increasingly complex world, it is critical that all students have extensive practice in what it means to think like a scientist. The skills essential in science education are “not only needed by scientists, but by every citizen in order to become a scientifically literate person able to function in a society where science has a major role and impact [on daily life]” (Huppert et al., 2002, 807). Advances in every arena, from computer technology to healthcare to food production to the automotive industry have changed our world in ways that few could have anticipated. Students need a firm grasp of science in order to fully comprehend their world and make informed decisions. The questions presented by new technologies may not have an answer or may have multiple answers. Students who have experience applying scientific inquiry and reasoning to real-world problems in the classroom will have an edge when faced with these types of questions as adults:

  • What does it mean for a food to be genetically modified? Is it dangerous?
  • What effects will new fuel technologies have on the environment?
  • What are the benefits and detriments of stem cell technology?

In the last twenty years, educators and researchers have begun to look carefully at science education and how students learn best. It is generally accepted that students learn best by doing – particularly in science courses (Dalton et al., 1997). When students are engaged in “actively constructing knowledge from a combination of experience, interpretation and structured interactions with peers and teachers” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.79), they are more likely to gain an expert understanding of science concepts.

Technology tools are one way to expose children to this type of learning. Indeed, as researchers have begun to understand more about the situations in which students learn best, they have found that “the structure and resources of traditional classrooms” are often inadequate and that “technology – when used effectively – can enable ways of teaching that are much better matched to how children learn” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.79). While many studies of technology use in the classroom have reported mixed results, the largest gains seem to occur when technology tools are used to teach science and mathematics (Roschelle et al., 2000). Current multimedia technologies allow students to interact with information in new ways, change content, and even create their own visualizations. Such interactivity enables a wide variety of users to access content.

Scientists routinely use a number of technology tools in their daily practice, including virtual laboratories and simulations, models of scientific phenomena, and collaborative tools such as e-mail, video conferencing, and online collaborative knowledge bases such as wikis. Many of these tools support hands-on work done in the laboratory or field; others enable researchers to view processes–such as protein folding–that would be impossible to observe otherwise. While students are unlikely to have access to many of these tools in the classroom, they can use similar technologies and multimedia tools to work like scientists; by collaborating with their peers, modeling scientific processes, conducting virtual experiments, and actively participating in research with scientists locally and around the world.

There are many choices when it comes to multimedia technology for science instruction. It is important that teachers know how to evaluate technology and determine what the best fit is for their students, their classroom, their curriculum, and their teaching style (Roschelle et al., 2000).

This Research in Brief article describes some of the ways that classroom teachers can use multimedia technologies to enhance science instruction and develop students’ scientific inquiry skills. We preface the discussion by noting that while specific titles and types of software are mentioned, there is insufficient research to make specific recommendations regarding tools beneficial for specific circumstances. The article is divided into three main types of multimedia tools:

Modeling Tools and Multiple Representations,

Tools that Facilitate Collaboration and Discourse, and

Simulations and Virtual Labs.

Modeling Tools and Multiple Representations

This section covers implementation strategies, advice for choosing a program, recommended resources, and a more detailed description of the research literature on the use of multimedia tools in instruction.

While multiple representations are not necessarily multimedia, and not all multimedia is equally effective (Mayer, 2005), the ways that scientists use multiple media and multiple representations can teach us a great deal about how to use these materials in the classroom. Learners are better able to grasp new pieces of information and discern patterns when they are presented with “numerous, effective examples” (Rose and Meyer, 2002). If we view science learning as a process of inquiry and investigation, it makes sense to use multiple representations as an inquiry tool, in much the same way that scientists in the field do (Kozma and Russell, 2005).

Students often develop scientific understandings as a result of their own observations and what they can see to be true. This approach is problematic when the phenomena under investigation are unseen or at least unobservable in the confines of the classroom. Computer-based modeling tools can help students overcome these difficulties. These tools “create exciting opportunities for students to create, manipulate, and interact with their own constructions, which in turn support them in developing understandings through their first-hand experience” (Barnett et al., 351).

Modeling tools enable students to manipulate objects and experiments in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Students in astronomy can use modeling tools to create a model solar system, and manipulate planetary rotations to learn how sunrise would look from the moon or how the Earth’s tilt affects surface temperatures (Barnett et al., 2005).

An important component of scientific learning is the ability to “mentally transform 2-D objects into dynamic 3-D objects” (Barnett et al., 334). For example, to understand the changing of the seasons or the structure of DNA students need to not only visualize a static 3-D representation of the phenomenon but also how it might change over time or in accordance with various factors (Barnett et al., 2005). Such visualizations are challenging for most students, but may be especially difficult for students with learning disabilities or cognitive difficulties (Dalton et al., 1997). Modeling tools and software can help students visualize processes that might be difficult to conceptualize otherwise.

An example of how students might use this type of tool to gain understanding of an unseen phenomenon is in the use of chemistry modeling software ChemSense. ChemSense provides students with a variety of tools that allow them create representations of their experiments. These tools engage students in working with partners and link to work done in the chemistry lab, thus helping to develop both collaborative and physical lab skills (Kozma and Russell, 2005). When working with ChemSense, “students jointly conduct wet lab experiments and use multiple representations to analyze, discuss and understand their goals, results and conclusions” (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 416). ChemSense features a screen design that displays videos of experiments, animations of nanoscale views of the experiment, graphic representations as well as “chemical equations, text, data collection sheets, and molecular models” (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 413). In this way, the software provides students with multiple representations of the same experiment, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of the processes taking place.

Another key feature of modeling tools is that they allow users to change the viewing perspective, discovering, for example, what the moon would look like to someone standing on the sun (Barnett et al., 2005). This provides students with learning opportunities not typically available in a middle school or high school science class, where students generally have available only two-dimensional pictures from a typical science textbook. For students learning about astronomy, the ability to change perspective is crucial – to understand how eclipses occur, students need to understand how the Sun, Moon, and Earth orbit and interact. If, using an interactive 3-D computer model, students “can view the Earth-Moon-Sun system from different perspectives, the likelihood that they will develop a scientifically accurate explanation is greatly enhanced because they can test if their understanding holds from many different viewpoints” (Barnett et al., 2005, p.352).

Multiple representations can be a great addition to any teacher’s toolkit; students can access multiple representations quickly and easily and can self-select those representations that are most relevant to them (Lajoie, 2001; Rose and Meyer, 2002). Both teacher and student can manipulate and edit digital media to create their own representations (Rose and Meyer, 2002), resulting in examples that are meaningful and connected to students’ prior knowledge (Lajoie, 2001). In addition to allowing students to mirror the processes that scientists themselves engage in, these representations enable students to explore and discuss phenomena and objects that may otherwise be intangible, such as the molecular structure of a reagent (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 411).

Choosing a Program

Many of the modeling tools currently available are designed for professional scientists (chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc.) but can be used with high school students in introductory programs. Some of these programs are freely available for download and have tips and ideas for using them with high school students. However, modeling tools are not as widely available as other types of multimedia tools for science learning such as simulations or virtual laboratories. When you are selecting a program for your classroom, it is important that you choose something that will match with your curriculum and with the hands-on activities you already use. While studies have shown that students can gain greater understanding when using digital representations, they are not a replacement for a student actually conducting an experiment or observing phenomena.

Another key feature to look for is a tool or software that will allow students to manipulate their representation in various ways, or to view different types of representations (as in ChemSense). Part of the strength of these types of tools is that they allow students to view a scientific phenomenon in many different ways, thus deepening their understanding and allowing them to observe what would normally be invisible or difficult to view.

Finally, many of these tools seem to be most effective when students use them together. When students manipulate representations and models and discuss their findings, they are prompted to engage in the same types of discourse that professional scientists engage in as part of their daily practice.


The products and Web sites mentioned below are not a comprehensive list, nor are they recommendations. They are intended to provide an overview of the types of resources available and where to find them. Recommended grade levels are in parentheses.

Stellarium stellarium

Stellarium is a free open source planetarium program. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.


chemsenseChemSense is an NSF-funded project to study students' understanding of chemistry and develop software and curricula to help students investigate chemical systems and express their ideas in animated chemical notation. ChemSense software is available freely for download.

MathMol (K-12)

mathmolMathMol is designed to serve as an introductory starting point for those interested in the field of molecular modeling. Page features links to various tutorials and free online tools for molecular modeling.

Protein Explorer (9-12, college)

protein explorerProtein Explorer is free software for visualizing the three-dimensional structures of protein, DNA, and RNA macromolecules, and their interactions and binding of ligands, inhibitors, and drugs.

CHIME (potentially K-12)

ChimeMDL Chime lets scientists view chemical structures from within popular Web browsers, Java Applets, and Java applications. CHIME is used by scientists but can also be used in high school chemistry courses. The MathMol website has a K-12 CHIME tutorial that can help younger students use the software. CHIME is available free with registration to the MDL website.

YASARA (9-12)

yasaraYASARA (Yet Another Scientific Artificial Reality Application) is molecular-graphics, -modeling and -simulation program for Windows and Linux. While designed for professional scientists, it can be useful for helping students visualize molecular models. The first stage of the software, YASARA View, is available free for download.

TINKER (9-12)

TinkerTINKER is a free molecular modeling software for molecular mechanics and dynamics. Updates of the software are also available periodically online.

Encyclopedia Galactica (5-12)

Encyclopedia GalacticaEncyclopedia Galactica is a freeware planetarium program that allows the creation of different types of sky maps in which practically any element is customizable.

Starry Night Software (5-12)

Starry NightStarry Night is a variety of astronomy software titles that allow students to view a virtual night sky from any point on Earth, travel to planets, view planets and stars using daylight, twilight and nighttime views, view the night sky at various points during history, maneuver around 3-D galaxies, and print out star charts among many other activities.

Research Support

Expand this section to read more about the research behind this article. [Hide]

Part of the value of modeling tools relates to the fact that students make meaning when they are able to manipulate images. Students are more likely to understand and remember concepts when engaged in these types of activities than when passively receiving information from a lecture or book (Cifuentes and Hsieh, 2004).

Examination of realistic models can also support effective scientific discourse. In the observational study of undergraduate chemistry students and professional chemists discussed previously, researchers noted chemistry students talked very little “about the molecular properties of the compounds they were synthesizing or the reaction mechanism that might be taking place during their experiments”; their conversations were procedural rather than conceptual in nature (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p.411-412). When these same students later worked together using modeling software to design a digital model of the compound, the nature of their discourse changed dramatically. Their digital representation enabled students to manipulate their model and to view aspects of the compound that were not directly observable. As students worked with the modeling software, researchers observed that “student discourse – much like the discourse we observed among professional chemists – was filled with references to the molecular properties and processes that underlie the chemical synthesis that they previously performed in the wet lab” (Kozma and Russell, p.412).

Similar studies of digital representations in chemistry have also had positive results. In a study of undergraduate students using ChemSense in an introductory chemistry course, researchers found that students who used became better at using representations in chemistry – and that the more students created drawings and animations using the program, the more their ‘representational competence’ improved (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 418). Additionally, the students who created more representations showed a “deeper understanding of the geometry-related aspects of chemical phenomena in their animations” (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 418).

In another study of students using ChemSense – this time of two groups of high school students – researchers found that using the tool helped students become more careful and attentive in their observations of chemical phenomena. Students who used the software tended to “think more carefully about specific aspects of chemical phenomena to which they might not otherwise attend, such as the number of molecules involved in a reaction, the particular bonds created in the reaction, the bond angles or the sequences of steps in a reaction” (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 418).

In each of the above mentioned studies, using digital models and representations of chemical phenomena helped students deepen their understanding of the processes involved in their experiments as well as helping students to develop the skills necessary for becoming an ‘expert’ chemist. While these same effects may be seen when using physical models, limited research has shown that some students may actually do better when using digital representations and modeling software.

In a study of Israeli high school chemistry students, researchers used computer-based molecular modeling as part of a program to “improve students’ understanding concepts of molecular bonding and structure, their spatial ability, and their perceptions of the concept of a model” (Kozma and Russell, 2005, p. 422). Students were divided into two groups and worked in pairs to conduct a series of experiments. Students in the experimental group conducted the investigations using the standard workbook in conjunction with molecular modeling software; the students in the control group carried out the same investigations using the workbook and plastic models (Kozma and Russell, 2005). While both groups of students improved their understanding of the topics, students using the modeling software showed greater improvement. Students in the experimental group “scored higher than those in the control group on measures of their understanding of structure and bonding” (Kozma and Russell, 2005, 422). All students improved their scores in measures of spatial ability (based on pre and post tests), but the students who had used the molecular modeling software showed greater gains than their peers who had used the plastic models (Kozma and Russell, 2005).

Additionally, research specifically shows that modeling tools can be beneficial for students with disabilities and those who are struggling. 3-D models have been shown to increase the speed with which these students are able to learn new physical tasks such as using laboratory equipment and to improve low-achieving students’ ability to construct mental models of scientific concepts (Barnett et al., 2005).

Tools that Facilitate Collaboration and Discourse

This section covers implementation strategies, advice for choosing a program, recommended resources, and a more detailed description of the research literature on the use of multimedia tools in instruction.

Scientists need to be able to reason and argue theories effectively. In the classroom, collaborative learning tools foster ongoing peer discussion that can help students develop their own reasoning and argumentation skills. Collaborative learning tools also help students to confront scientific misconceptions and refine theories. In a process akin to peer review, students can present hypotheses and observations, engage in debate, and build upon each others’ work and ideas (Lajoie, 2001). Discussion, debate, and collaboration help students to think like scientists and make the shift from novice to expert understanding of scientific inquiry.

One of the key ways that students can benefit from the use of collaborative learning tools is in the development of expert scientific language. As discussed previously, scientists regularly use specific phrases and language to communicate with their peers. Software can be used to prompt students to use this scientific language as they work with peers to conduct experiments, discuss their findings and when they record their observations. For instance, a collaborative workspace tool may ask students to choose sentence starters every time they write up observations or rebut a peer’s hypothesis. Through customizable scaffolding, software may instruct students to select a sentence starter such as:

  • I hypothesize that…
  • I observed that…
  • My research shows that…
  • My hypothesis is based on…
  • I will test my hypothesis by…
  • My theory doesn’t explain why…
  • A better theory might be…(Tan, Yeo and Lim, 2005).

These phrases provide students with the scientific language they need to give and receive relevant feedback and engage in authentic scientific discussion. Using software or tools on the Web, students can post videos or animations of their work, propose a theory, and invite feedback from a classmate or local researcher. Software programs that feature an animated agent (see the topic paper on Learning with Multimedia Agents) provide students with ready access to an expert as they proceed through an experiment; the agent may provide feedback, answer student questions, or model proper experimental procedures.

One example of a technology resource that teachers can use to foster small group learning is Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). CSCL can “be an ideal platform for enabling students to engage in collaborative work and discussion, providing a record of the development of ideas, and a way of tracking students’ contributions for assessment purposes” (Tan, Yeo, and Lim, 2005, p.370). Students can use computers to share ideas with peers that are in the next room or halfway around the world. Prompts built into CSCL tools can encourage students to present their ideas like a scientist, asking them to use certain language in their posted comments to peers (i.e. “I observed that”, “I hypothesize that”) (Tan, Yeo, and Lim, 2005).

While CSCL tools vary in functionality and ease of use, they have several common features. Often these tools function as a common space or forum for users to share ideas. They often resemble internet bulletin boards or wikis. In one such program, Knowledge Forum, users see a graphical representation of student notes, both their own and those of their peers. Students can post new ideas, respond to the suggestions of peers, link to further information, or question a peer’s assumptions. As the discussions take place, all users can see the progression of ideas. Data, images, and video clips are saved in a communal database so that students can search and share knowledge (Tan, Yeo, and Lim, 2005).

Though CSCL tools are often not strictly multimedia (they are frequently text-based) they can be used to foster multimedia learning. The inherent simplicity of most computer-based collaboration tools means that students (and teachers) can customize the tools to meet their needs. So, students working on a physics project can post short video clips of an experiment to share with other students. Alternatively, they might use animation or drawing tools to create simple animations explaining concepts of motion and post theories about how these concepts relate to their experience in the classroom.

Other tools that help students become a part of a scientific community include interactive videos and software that create a mock scientific community and encourage debate on various science topics – such as Science Court – and Web sites that provide a virtual meeting space for students and researchers from around the world. Some of these programs allow students to join scientific expeditions in real time through streaming video; students conduct their own research locally and can contribute to the larger research field. Other programs encourage students to collect data locally and then compare the data with that collected by other students around the world. The JASON Project is an example. Each year researchers at the JASON Project conduct research on a different science topic (previous topics include wetlands, Mars, the rainforest, and aquatics). Using videos, data collection, virtual labs, simulations, and streaming satellite videos of scientists in the field, students participate in research, interact with researchers, and engage in scientific discourse with their peers.

Another example of online, real-world collaborative learning, GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), enables students to join a worldwide team of environmental scientists. Students participating in GLOBE experience being a scientist as they

  • take valid scientific measurements of water, air, soil, etc.;
  • share data via the GLOBE Web site;
  • publish research according to GLOBE protocol;
  • analyze data through the creation of maps, charts, and graphs on the GLOBE Web site, and;
  • collaborate with scientists and students around the world (

The GLOBE program involves nearly 4000 schools internationally in research projects with professional scientists. GLOBE encourages schools to collaborate and compare research so that students living along the Mississippi River, for example, can compare water quality data with students living elsewhere along the river and draw conclusions about environmental factors, wildlife, habitats, and possible sources of pollution. As teachers and students at participating schools collect data, scientists working in the field provide mentoring and advice about “how to apply scientific concepts in analyzing real environmental problems” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.83).

Choosing a Program

As with any other multimedia tool for science learning, collaborative learning tools work best when they augment the great work that is already going on in the classroom. When students work together, learning is often enhanced. Collaborative learning tools can help teachers take advantage of those benefits while also engaging students in scientific discourse with peers and professional scientists.

When choosing a program, it is important to select something that fits with your curriculum and state frameworks. It is also important to keep the age and academic ranges of your students in mind when making a selection. Some of the collaborative learning tools may be very text heavy and resemble internet bulletin boards or chat rooms. These types of tools may be appropriate for high school students but may present challenges for younger students or students who are struggling readers. Tools like Science Court which presents students with fun animations of science trial proceedings and then asks students to work together to reach a verdict may be more appropriate for younger students and can help them become accustomed to making scientific arguments and using appropriate language.

Tools that allow students to participate in actual research with professional scientists (such as GLOBE and the JASON Project) allow students to engage in a project on multiple levels and as well as offering students a variety of entry points to understanding a topic. When students work as part of a team to gather, analyze and disseminate data they can take on roles that are of interest to them and play to their strengths. Such tools may be an ideal choice for differentiating instruction in an inclusive classroom.


The products and Web sites mentioned below are not a comprehensive list, nor are they recommendations. They are intended to provide an overview of the types of resources available and where to find them. Recommended grade levels are in parentheses.

The JASON Project (4-8, possibly be used with older students)

Jason ProjectThe JASON Project curricula uses a hands-on inquiry based approach that mirrors the work of real scientists. JASON Curricula are based on national core curriculum standards and are also correlated to each state’s standards for science in grades 4 through 8.

The Great Ocean Rescue

Great Ocean RescueParticipating in collaborative teams, students face The Great Ocean Rescue (5-8)four rescue missions that take them deep into the world's oceans. To solve each problem students draw on information about ocean ecosystems, marine biology, environmental science, and earth science. Also available is the Great Solar System Rescue.

Knowledge Forum (K-12)

Knowlede forumKnowledge Forum is an electronic group workspace designed to support the process of knowledge building. Students can share information, launch collaborative investigations, and build networks of new ideas with any number of peers, from small groups to an entire school or grade.

GLOBE (K-12)

GLOBEGLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) is a worldwide hands-on, primary and secondary school-based education and science program.

Science Court and Science Court Explorations (4-6; 2-4)

science courtAnimated science trials (and experiment toolkits) let students put scientific theories on trial and determine their validity.

Research Support

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In the classroom, teachers regularly engage students in small group or pair work because collaboration can provide students with opportunities to learn from other points of view (Lajoie, 2001). Decades of research into peer and collaborative work demonstrate measurable learning benefits for all students, regardless of academic achievement level. Studies have shown that having students work together can improve everything from scores on standardized tests, to study skills, organizational skills and completion of homework (Thrope and Wood, 2000). Improvements are not limited to the academic arena. Collaborative learning is also linked to improvement, for both tutors and tutees, in other school-related outcomes:

Often students – particularly those who are struggling – may learn better from their peers than they do from teachers or textbooks. Research indicates that students with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, language delays, emotional or behavioral disabilities, as well as at-risk populations and those with limited English proficiency can benefit from peer learning opportunities (Fulk and King, 20001; Kalkowski, 2001). Peers may be “more effective explainers than adults because peers share a similar language, and they can translate difficult vocabulary into a language that fellow students can understand” (Webb, Farivar, Mastergeorge, 2002, p.14). When students work together they may be able to understand more complex material than they would be able to on their own. When students collaborate on a task they have the “opportunity not only to imitate what others are doing, but also to discuss the task and make thinking visible” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.80).

While there are differences from in-class peer learning and collaborative learning in a digital environment, it is reasonable to assume that these benefits would be seen regardless of where (or how) the peer learning takes place. What’s more, collaborative technology tools can be a great way to augment what is already happening in the classroom.

A big part of the ability to think like a scientist is the ability to picture oneself as a scientist. Students who are able to work with scientists in the field and contribute to real-world research see themselves as partner scientists and take pride in their work and their use of professional language and tools. As they gain experience, their skills in scientific inquiry, use of tools, observations, hypotheses, and data analysis skills also improve. In an evaluation of approximately 600 upper elementary and middle school students who had participated in the JASON Project found that participation in the expeditions changed students’ perceptions of science and improves their usage of scientific language (Goldenberg et al., 2003). Students were interviewed before and after participation in a JASON expedition. Before participating, students described scientists as people that wear lab coats and work with test tubes and chemicals. One student commented that “Before this, I thought scientists were in white coats in labs with their clipboards writing down like b squared equals c squared. I found out that scientists can be really cool” (Goldenberg et al., 2003).

When, after participating in the expeditions with JASON scientists, researchers asked student participants to imagine themselves as scientists, students in every age group were able to place themselves in that role without difficulty (Goldenberg et al., 2003). Students drew pictures of themselves engaged in scientific research with captions such as:

  • I’m using the Remote Operated Vehicle (6th grade),
  • I am under water doing research and looking at the formations of the rocks (5th grade), and
  • I am drilling into a rock to see how old it might be (7th grade) (Goldenberg et al.2003, p.17-19).

In post-expedition interviews, students also mentioned that they had enjoyed the multimedia aspects of the JASON Project because they enabled them to get involved in actual research with actual scientists (Goldenberg et al., 2003). One student commented that “Science here we do in more detail and you can place yourself in that position, where in the regular classroom, it’s just, you’re reading from the textbook and it’s just reading. And here, you can actually do things so you can learn more about it, so you’ll be more into it” (Goldenberg et al., p. 22).

As with the JASON project, students participating in GLOBE are motivated and engaged in learning because they are helping out with real-world research (Goldenberg et al., 2003; Roschelle et al., 2000). While there have been no investigations of the GLOBE program’s effects on student learning, teachers who participated said that “they view the program as very effective and indicated that the greatest student gains occurred in the areas of observational and measurement skills, ability to work in small groups and technology skills” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.83).

Additionally, because the use of collaborative learning tools often involves student creation of digital media – such as videos of their work, animations of experiments or interactive maps of their environmental areas – which are then shared with peers, student understanding may be further enhanced. The process of creating video, animation, and diagrams requires students to clarify and develop their ideas, which can improve comprehension (Cifuentes and Hsieh, 2004). Research has shown that the visual representations students create can often be more effective than pre-created visual representations because “they are more personally relevant to students’ understandings and prior knowledge and because they contribute to construction of meaning” (Cifuentes and Hsieh, 2004, p.112).

Simulations and Virtual Labs

This section covers implementation strategies, advice for choosing a program, recommended resources, and a more detailed description of the research literature on the use of multimedia tools in instruction.

Students need hands-on experience to understand how to conduct experiments in the laboratory. But with virtual labs, we can easily run thousands of experiments, changing the variables and getting results in minutes instead of laboriously repeating procedures by hand. Liz Pape, President and CEO, Virtual High School (Wired, 2007)

Much of science learning is hands on, but there are instances when it is impractical or impossible for students to participate in certain science activities. When–because of cost, time, safety issues, or accessibility–students are unable to engage in certain activities, computer simulations can be an effective approach (Huppert et al., 2002). Simulations may take many different forms, such as microworlds or virtual laboratories. These types of simulations are generally a software program or online applet “with which children play and discover concepts and cause-effect relationships through exploration and experimentation” (Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000, p. 107). A microworld can also be “characterized as a complete small version of some domain that is found in the world (for example, a zoo that places its animals in replicas of their natural environments can be a microworld for learning about world habitats) or artificially constructed (LOGO and SimCity are probably the most well known examples)” (Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000, p.107).

Virtual laboratories are similar to microworlds, although they may be less involved. For example, where a microworld may re-create an entire domain, a virtual lab may re-create a smaller area such as a lab table and dissection apparatus or a doctor’s office. What all types of simulations have in common however, is that they allow students to become completely immersed in a simulated world as they explore and learn progressively more complex topics and tasks.

Students can use simulations and virtual labs in many of the same ways that professional scientists do. Using virtual laboratories, students can conduct experiments using materials that would otherwise be cost prohibitive. Students can use simulations and microworlds to observe ecosystem dynamics and create animal population models. Simulations and virtual laboratories can also increase access to students with special needs. A student with a visual impairment or physical disability may be unable to dissect a frog with the rest of the class, because of difficulties making precise cuts with a scalpel. That same student may be able to easily complete a dissection when using a virtual tool. Simulations and virtual laboratories perhaps provide more access than any other multimedia tool in science, enabling all students to participate in normally unavailable activities such as DNA testing and provide increased access to students with disabilities by virtue of different means for receiving information and manipulating materials.

Simulations are perhaps one of the most widely available multimedia tools for science content at every grade level. Students can use simulations to explore the human body, to venture into outer space, to diagnose a heart murmur, to dissect a frog, to observe the laws of physics, and to dive deep into the ocean. The purpose of such simulations is not to make students into physicians or oceanographers or astronauts, but rather to give them the opportunity to “reason scientifically about data that is available in a simulated setting” (Lajoie et al., 159).

Physics is a great example of an area where simulations can help students gain a deeper understanding of the “unseen”. The simulation ThinkerTools is one example. ThinkerTools allows “middle school students to visualize the concepts of velocity and acceleration…by [showing] students what they cannot see in the real world” (Roschelle et al., 2000. p.86). Using the computer, students can add arrows representing “force, acceleration, and/or velocity, so that for the first time students can actually ‘see’ the equation F=ma” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.87).

These types of simulations are not intended to replace classroom experience or traditional lab work; rather they provide students with the opportunity for repetition and exposure to multiple representations (Huppert et al., 2002). These multiple exposures can help students deepen understanding.

Virtual laboratories and simulations can also have significant benefits for students with disabilities. Students with learning disabilities may have difficulties understanding abstract concepts. When students are asked to visualize processes that are difficult to observe (i.e., changes in a substance during heating and cooling), they may be unable to demonstrate understanding. However, a computer simulation can make such processes more concrete--by observing the transition from liquid to gas and back to liquid, students can see what happens to a liquid when it evaporates (Huppert et al., 2002).

Simulations can also be helpful for students with physical disabilities, behavioral disorders, or difficulties with fine motor skills, coordination or spatial perception. When conducting dissections in class, a student who is unable to hold a scalpel or make precise movements would typically be unable to participate fully, relying instead on a lab partner or aide to perform the physical actions (Bernhard and Bernhard, 1998). Similarly, a child with a vision impairment may be unable to see well enough to identify individual organs and parts of the frog anatomy. While these students would be able to participate on some level, their disability would present a barrier to full engagement. However, using a virtual dissection program such as Froguts, or Digital Frog these same students would be able to engage in the activity to the same extent as their peers – using a mouse or switch to make precise cuts on the screen, using a screen magnifier to examine internal organs, or hearing text read aloud – dissecting the frog, making observations and sharing ideas.

Choosing a Program

As mentioned in previous sections, it is absolutely critical that any simulation, virtual laboratory or microworld selected match your school’s curriculum and your students’ needs. It can be tempting to select software or multimedia tools based on the ‘cool’ factor; this is particularly true when looking at simulations. Many of the available simulations are visually pleasing, interesting and fun to play with, so be sure to also look for tools that are also academically rigorous and fit into what you’re teaching. Good choices in this area are often tools that are created by universities, reputable educational software companies, or media organizations that produce quality educational materials (such as the BBC and PBS). Many textbook companies are also creating mini virtual labs to go with their science curriculums; these will generally be correlated to specific state curriculum frameworks and so these are good bets as well.

Since simulations are often most effective when used in conjunction with hands-on experiences, it is also a good idea to look for tools can be used as part of regular classroom investigations. In some instances, simulations will be used to allow students to do something virtually that would be impossible to do in the classroom (diagnose a heart murmur, explore the deep ocean, etc.), when that is the case it can be helpful to link those experiences with ‘real-life’ experiences such as inviting a cardiologist to speak to the class about heart function or taking students to visit a local marine biology laboratory.

Finally, any tool selected will be more effective in improving student ability to engage in science if it is a regular part of the classroom experience. As in the study of students using a paleontology simulation discussed in the previous section, the most significant changes in student use of scientific language and understanding of the topic are seen when students have repeated exposure to simulations. This repeated exposure gives students ample time to practice being scientists.


The products and Web sites mentioned below are not a comprehensive list, nor are they recommendations. They are intended to provide an overview of the types of resources available and where to find them. Recommended grade levels are in parentheses.


ElectrocityElectroCity is an online computer game that lets players manage their own virtual towns and cities to teach players all about energy, sustainability and environmental management. While designed to teach users about environmental management in New Zealand, the lessons involved are applicable for students in other countries as well.


WindwardCreated in cooperation with Discovery Education, The Weather Channel, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, this online, interactive game teaches kids and adults about weather as they sail in a virtual race around the world. Players learn how to sail, how to read weather maps and negotiate winds and weather, what tools are needed, and more.

Nature: Virtual Serengeti

NatureThe Nature: Virtual Serengeti CD-ROM introduces students to East African vegetation, climate, and animal life. Students use a journal, field guide, and virtual video recorder to gain an understanding of biodiversity. Students explore virtual reality environments, watch animal videos and create their own interactive, multimedia journal to record their observations.

BBC Science Simulations (K-6)

BBC Science SimulationsBBC Science Simulations provide students with the opportunity to manipulate variables and explore virtual science experiments on a variety of topics including, plant growth, electricity, forces, friction, and food chains.

Virtual Scanning Electron Microscopy (9-12)

virtual microscopeStudents can use a virtual Scanning Electron Microscope to view how various specimens (jellyfish, carpet beetle, grasshopper, fruit fly, ragweed pollen, etc.) look when magnified. Students can adjust the focus, contrast, brightness, and level of magnification.

Virtual Field Trip Series (9-12)

virtual field tripVirtual Field Trip is a series of 3 stand-alone titles allowing students to explore a variety of habitats (wetlands, rainforest and desert) virtually. Titles include many accessibility features for students with disabilities or other learning needs.

BBC Science Games (3-12)

science gamesFree games (most using Flash) and simulations on a variety of topics in science and nature.

Froguts (6-12)

frogutsFroguts allows students to practice steps for frog dissection before or instead of hands-on dissection. The lab is interactive and provides explanations. Dissections of fetal pig, squid, and owl pellets are also available.

Digital Frog (6-12)

digital frogFully interactive frog dissection that teaches students about frog anatomy and major body systems as well allowing students to explore the diversity and ecology of frogs. Includes several accessibility options for students with disabilities or other learning needs.

Virtual Labs (K-12)

virtual labsVirtual Labs Software enables students to conduct experiments on a variety of topics.

Virtual Labs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (9-12)

Howard Hughes virtual labsVirtual Labs enables students to take on the role of scientist, technician, doctor, immunologist, and more as they participate in labs on topics such as cardiology, immunology, and bacterial identification; free.

Operation Frog Deluxe (4-10)

operation frog deluxeOperation Frog Deluxe software guides students through the virtual dissection of a frog, including pre-lab instructions, lab simulations, and post-lab reinforcements.

A Virtual Journey into the Universe (5-12)

virtual journey into universeThis free online activity allows puts students in the cockpit of a space shuttle as they explore the solar system. Students land on each planet where they find information about previous explorations of the planet, the planet’s exterior features, composition, and satellites. Students can also engage in interactive activities to learn more about various planetary features.

Virtual Space Tour (5-12)

virtual space tourAn animated encyclopedia that allows students to take a virtual tour of space learning about the unique features of comets, asteroids and each planet along the way.

Celestia (5-12)

celestiaCelestia is free space simulation that lets students explore the universe in three dimensions. Students can travel throughout the solar system, to any of over 100,000 stars, or even beyond the galaxy.

Research Support

Expand this section to read more about the research behind this article. [Hide]

A number of research studies have shown that simulations can be useful tools at all grade levels. While there are more studies at the upper elementary, middle and high school ranges, the research seems to be applicable to a variety of grade levels and academic achievement. Research suggests that these simulations can be most effective when used in combination with hands-on classroom experiments. While there is no substitute for actual hands-on experience, virtual experiments are just as effective, while also allowing students to repeat experiments multiple times (Huppert et al., 2002). When students repeat the same experiments, “under different controlling factors…they have the opportunity to do actually what scientists do during real scientific research…to repeat the experiments in order to prove that the results were not obtained by chance” (Huppert et al., 2002, p.819). So when students are engaged in both real-world and simulated experiments, they have the opportunity to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the topic being studied.

In controlled studies of middle school students using ThinkerTools, students “developed the ability to give correct scientific explanations of Newtonian principles several grade levels before the concept is usually taught” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.86). These students even scored higher than high school physics students in “their ability to apply basic principles of Newtonian mechanics to real-world situations: the middle schoolers averaged 68% correct answers on a six-item, multiple-choice test, compared with 50% for the high school physics students” (Roschelle et al., 2000, p.86-7).

While there is little research on the use of simulations by younger children, recent research shows promising effects on early elementary students. There has been some concern among educators and researchers that younger students do not develop the same kinds of problem-solving skills that older students do from using simulations, that younger children may be overly preoccupied with the game aspect of these tools (Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000). However, in one study, 2nd grade students who used a paleontology simulation for 6 weeks in conjunction with other classroom activities and guest speakers demonstrated significant changes in their use of scientific language (Figure 1).

Figure 1.Changes in student classifications of the natural world in association with use of a simulation.

Student by Ability

Pre-test Terminology

Post-Test Terminology

High Ability

Can fly; slimy animals; fast runners; grow outside

Reptiles; mammals; amphibians; insects; plants; feathered

High Ability

Aqua group; snake group; mammal group; winged group; plant

Reptiles; have fur; winged; aqua; plants; mammals

Average Ability

Bird; all smooth, slick kind of skin; chicken; shades of green; have fur that keeps them dry

Plants; wild animals; house pets; animals with camouflage

Average Ability

All hairy; part of nature; all dangerous; live on a farm

Cold blooded family; plant family; flying family; farm family; hair family

Low Ability

Water things; pretty things; things that have fur

Plants; wild life; home pets; farm animals; sea creatures

Low Ability

Nice to people; not nice to people; snake and frog; snake and shark; tree and flower

Plants; birds; cats family; same skin

(Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000, p. 114)

Before using the fossil simulation, students classified the natural world using very simplistic means. In a writing activity assigned by the teacher at the end of the six week activity, students the quality of student scientific language was much improved. All students wrote using improved descriptive and scientific language (Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000). Students used a number of appropriate professional terms in their writing such as ‘evidence’, ‘paleontologist’, ‘interdependence’, ‘habitat’, ‘diorama’ and ‘problem-solving’ (Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000, p. 119). Students also used scientific statements more frequently in their writing about fossil collection (i.e. “We are going to collect data”, “We are going to look for evidence,” and “We are going to make observations”; Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000, p. 121).

This software was successful in large part because it was specifically tailored to the curriculum. Frequently, multimedia tools are purchased “off the shelf” and are not designed to meet a specific teacher’s curriculum. The teacher must make the software an integral part of the curriculum (Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000, p. 124). Consistent experience with multimedia tools also seems to improve success. In this study, students worked with the simulations daily for 6 weeks. When students are exposed to a simulation or microworld repeatedly, they have ample opportunity to practice scientific language until it becomes internalized and students use it with ease.


Throughout this article, we tried to present a variety of multimedia tools for science learning, however, the tools presented here are just a small snapshot of what is currently available. While research on the efficacy of multimedia tools is somewhat limited, the research conducted to date suggests that multimedia tools may be most effective for science and mathematics learning. These tools can be effective additions to regular science instruction and can help students visualize unseen phenomena, develop scientific language, improve understanding of the scientific process and contribute to the development of scientific thinking. Many of these tools seem to be most successful with older students – upper elementary through college ( Kozma and Russell, 2005 ), although recent research is beginning to show similar benefits for younger children as well ( Henderson, Klemes and Eshet, 2000 ).


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