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SpECS: Simulations Help Students Understand "Real-Life" Science

Paul Woodward, University of Minnesota

Kevin Edgar, Ben Johnson, Julia Sytina
University of Minnesota
John Rozeboom, South High School, Minneapolis
John Olson, Arlington High School,
St. Paul

F or the video game generation, real life sometimes isn't that thrilling. How exciting is the solar system? Where's the drama in a vibrating string? But add technology to these same scenarios and kids become intrigued. The Secondary Education in Computational Science (SpECS) summer program at the University of Minnesota is doing just that. Students and teachers, working with program director Paul Woodward and project coordinator Julia Sytina, have worked on computational physics simulations that are incorporated into school-year curricula. The program helps students learn not only about computational science, but also about the roots of scientific discovery: curiosity, imagination, creativity, and playfulness.



Dynamic, Interactive SimulationsFigure 1. Dynamic, Interactive Simulations
Students can witness changes in a planet's orbit that result from changing its mass.


SpECS began in 1995 with a proposal from Minnesota's Laboratory for Computational Science and Engineering (LCSE) to the NSF for a grant to bring computational science to the high school communities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Grant in hand and inspired and educated by discussions with teachers, colleagues, and the leaders of several similar projects--among them Richard Tapia of Rice University--Woodward partnered with high school teachers John Rozeboom of South High School in Minneapolis and John Olson of Arlington High School in St. Paul. In 1996, the three, joined by Rozeboom and Olson's team-teaching partners and four handpicked students, convened the first summer session of SpECS.

"Originally, we thought that the teachers would program the user interfaces," Woodward recalls. "But we quickly learned that wouldn't work, for a variety of reasons. Bringing in students was the obvious solution. We ended up with a great mix: students programming and teachers creating curriculum for the simulations."

Woodward felt strongly that the high school participants should come from socio-economically disadvantaged areas. "We wanted to work with schools that needed the help the most," Woodward says. "Those students should get a leg-up on the stiff competition they'll face in college from wealthier kids who have had more scholastic advantages."

For three summers the team of students, teachers, and staff worked on refining the physics simulations, which Woodward had previously created for his undergraduate class. "My simulations were all in Fortran," Woodward says, "and the interfaces weren't 'sexy' enough for the high school students. They learned C and made them more interactive, more enticing."

During the academic year, the SpECS teachers used the simulations in their science classes. The summer students soon found that they, too, still had a valuable role to play--as technical support. "That was an unanticipated benefit," Rozeboom says, "and one that really contributed to classroom success. The summer students were familiar with the system and were able to work with the teachers to troubleshoot problems that arose. They also networked the school SGI labs. That helped us be independent of the LCSE."

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By summer 1998 it was clear that the small scale of the original program was too confining. "This summer, we're doing SpECS differently, to help it move on to the next stage," Woodward says.

The simulation package--originally created for SGI workstations, which LCSE helped acquire for the team teachers' classrooms--is being converted to work on Windows platforms. "This is realistic for more classrooms," Rozeboom says. Ben Johnson of LCSE is leading this effort, with funding provided from EOT-PACI. Rozeboom, meanwhile, continues to work on curriculum for using the software in the classroom.

Kevin Edgar, also of LCSE and with funding from the EOT organization, is working on teacher training materials to accompany the Windows simulation package. "When we started SpECS we initiated a relationship with the TIES project," Woodward says. "They're anxious to receive and disseminate our software and teacher training materials, and we'll soon be in a position to have them do so. We needed these last few summers to refine the lab modules." TIES is a privately-funded effort to bring computer training and educational software to teachers and administrators in Minnesota school districts. TIES, among other partnerships including the PACI program, is helping SpECS get these learning tools to teachers state- and nationwide.

"I recall being in high school in the 1960s, around the time of the space race, when there were numerous summer science programs for students," Woodward says. "It was a response to Sputnik and the Russians beating us into space. We don't have those same types of programs anymore, though the computer age is as revolutionary as the space age was. SpECS is my way of giving students the same sort of scientific 'shot in the arm' as I had when I was a kid. We've had great success so far, and I'm looking forward to more."
--AF *

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