21.122 pedagogical value of simulations

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 23 Jun 2007 08:27:36 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 122.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 23 Jun 2007 08:19:35 +0100
         From: "Robert S. Tannenbaum" <rst_at_uky.edu>
         Subject: Re: 21.112 pedagogical value of simulations


I have had several quite positive experiences using simulations for
educational purposes.

In physics, it is possible to give students a "feel" for the laws of
planetary motion by allowing them to manipulate variables in a simulated
solar system and arrive at Kepler's laws. It is also possible for them to
gain a facility with the combination of vectors by "shooting" simulated free
throws in basketball by inputting the horizontal and vertical components of
force applied to the simulated ball and watching the resulting trajectory as
the gravity vector is also applied.

In the social sciences, I once taught an entire course using a large
simulation called "APEX" (Air Pollution Exercise), that was based on
Lansing, Michigan, with an emphasis on air pollution. Students played
various roles in the community (politicians, industrialists, developers, air
pollution control officers, news media, etc.) They were provided with a
computer printout of their current status and had to interact, based on that
status, making decisions for their roles for that cycle. Their decisions
were then used as input for the computer to generate the status for the next
cycle. On alternate weeks we had the interactions. In between we had
seminars with guests on relevant basic social science topics, such as urban
planning, government structure, economics, etc. The game served as the
stimulus for all sorts of discussion and learning. The (unplanned by me)
climax occurred when one of the air pollution control officers was observed
accepting a "bribe" from an industrialist. That inspired me to invite a
friend/neighbor who was an assistant U.S. Attorney to come to class and
conduct a "trial." It was a wonderful learning experience, with students
taking on the roles of attorneys, jurors, courtroom staff, etc. My friend
orchestrated it and served as "judge." The student course evaluations as
well as my own observations confirmed that they learned a wide range of
social sciences and were able to relate what they learned to their own
lives. It was a great success.

I know also of industrial uses of simulations that are considered to be
quite valuable. Caterpillar, the company that manufactures huge
construction and farming equipment, routinely uses three-dimensional,
virtual simulations of their prototypes before actually constructing them.
It is far more efficient to "construct" them in software and make
modifications than to build working models and find they need to be
redesigned. As another example, my younger son creates the code for
simulations of potential new supercomputers before they are actually built.
The entire computer is simulated to determine whether it will perform as
predicted, without having to go to the expense of actually building a

Depending on one's definition of simulation, we might consider the virtual
"unrolling" of ancient scrolls as a simulation. However, I cannot offer
other good examples of positive benefits of simulations in the humanities;
perhaps someone else can.

Bob Tannenbaum

On 6/21/07 5:38 PM, "Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty
<willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>)" <willard_at_LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU> wrote:

> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 112.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/cch/research/publications/humanist.html
> www.princeton.edu/humanist/
> Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu
> Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2007 09:22:13 +0100
> From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
> >
> Thanks to my colleague John Lavagnino, I have come across a letter to
> the editor of the American Physical Society News 16.6 (June 2007),
> "Can Simulations Really Teach Physics?" by Robert Shafer (Los
> Alamos). He is responding to the assertion that since real events
> happen too fast to be observed in the laboratory, it's better to
> watch simulations of them in slow motion on the computer. He makes
> the case for "doing the real thing, even if the equipment has to be
> improvised", rather than watching it being done.
> Recently, in conversation with a physicist at UCLA, I asked about
> computing in his discipline, specifically whether simulations of
> otherwise unobservable realities -- let's say, just to have an
> example, subatomic events at the core of an imploding star -- produce
> anything anyone can be certain of. His answer was that now there are
> in essence three kinds of physics -- theoretical, experimental,
> computational -- and that in computational physics "they do things
> differently there" (to quote L. P. Hartley's novel). If the
> simulation is plausible, matching everything else one can know, then
> it takes on the status of something one can learn from.
> Where do we sort in all this? Is it fair to say that since the
> phenomena we study are also not directly observable, our simulacra
> play a similar role? If we make a distinction between modelling
> something we can get to otherwise, e.g. by reading or looking, and
> simulating that which we cannot get to except after the fact, such as
> possible patterns of influence, then could we draw a parallel between
> computational physics and, say, a computational literary studies? Are
> statistical studies of literature an example?
> Yours,
> WM
> Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
> Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
> http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/.

Robert S. Tannenbaum, Ed.D.

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has come from very small original beginnings: somebody said "no." -- Steve
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Received on Sat Jun 23 2007 - 03:40:18 EDT

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