Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chemistry Simulations vs Hands-On

Note: I'm hoping to post at least a couple more experiments here -- one that we are still trying to get to operate as advertise -- before turning our attention to biology for the coming school year. (I've just set up in anticipation!)

But in the meantime I'd like to pass along an email my friend and fellow homeschooling parent Paul Fernhout sent our local homeschool email list today with some thoughts on chemistry simulations:

In regard to something else I am looking into, I found a website today I wanted to share by Professor William J. Vining at the State University of NY at Oneonta. He has helped develop free chemistry simulations that should run in most web browsers with a Shockwave/Flash plugin installed. At least most of the first five or ten simulations in the list at that URL should be easy enough to play with about some basic ideas of chemistry (the periodic table, etc.). I think the simulations all go with a specific text book, but the general concepts would apply for any person interested in chemistry even without a specific textbook. Essentially, these are all safe scientific toys which may (or may not) in turn inspire further interest in the topic of chemistry. So, think of most of them more as chemistry puzzles (what could they mean?) than chemistry instruction.

From Prof. Vining's main page:
My principal interest lies in developing and testing educational materials and methods for chemistry. The materials are primarily computer-based multimedia software systems that serve the dual purpose of simulating the exploratory nature of chemical investigation and also make use of graphical advantages of computer systems to better explain chemical concepts. The focus of these programs is to enable students of chemistry to explore chemical concepts in a manner that leads them to discover those concepts independently. Because chemical concepts are based on analysis of experimental results, the software systems we design are centered around presenting the student with information they would obtain from an experiment, along with computer-based tools for analyzing those results. This allows the student to observe trends and choose the appropriate experiment to answer a particular question. Once an area of chemistry has been presented by an interactive experimental simulation, the concept can then be explained using multimedia tools such as videos and animations. Our work involves preparation of materials appropriate for use in general, organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical chemistry. Recent projects have included work on a CD-ROM textbook for general chemistry and currently we are working on modules for organic chemistry.
He has some other resources linked from his main page, like some videos of mixing chemicals (though the one I tried did not play well for me). He also has some downloadable things (for Windows?) I did not try.

The Concord Consortium is another site with high quality free learning resources related to chemistry and other things as well, including for example CC Atoms. But some of these resources are harder things to try as they require Java and perhaps locally installing some things. Many (but not all) of these resources are designed for college courses, but could be fun to just play with for someone interested in chemistry who at least knew a bit to get
started with.

A chemistry simulation is definitely IMHO a good use of computers for older homeschoolers, since real (sometimes dangerous) chemistry sets are hard to get these days, making chemistry otherwise difficult to really explore in detail at home. There are some nostalgia and warnings there in the comments about old chemistry sets by the way (some had radioactive materials). There is a link in the comments to that blog post to a supposedly interesting set at Edmunds Scientific. But that set is $200 and obviously is going to take some supervision and pose some risks.

Scientific Explorer's Fizzy Foamy Science Kit of Safe Chemical Reactions is an example of a ($20) "safe" chemistry-related set we got for our child (age four) but it mostly just has stuff you'd find around the house like oil, baking soda, and vinegar (except maybe citric acid in pure form): "
A container of oil in it had leaked all over everything when we got it, but it cleaned up easily. It has some scientific looking stuff in it (not sure if it would be cheaper to buy it separately), but is probably not very interesting for older kids for that long.

The simulations let you try to do all sorts of things, although may be mainly of interest to older kids since they are more abstract (that is, no fizzing). Obviously, like all simulations, they are still not the same as the real thing, being worse in some ways and better than others. They will help kids get the intellectual challenge of chemistry, but they won't help them gain a sense of confidence in a lab setting they would get with the real stuff. But even if you had the real stuff, I'd suggest the simulations could still be interesting (perhaps even more interesting for a motivated learner).

Thanks, Paul!