When faced with constructing and measuring an electrical circuit for the first time, students are often (legitimately) afraid of touching anything out of fear of electrocution. Simulation allows students to experiment with the concepts of electricity without concern for the risks. For example, a student can indeed “blow” a component in the simulation, but because the component is virtual there is no harm done and the student can learn from the mistake without the stress that normally comes with “smoking” parts in the lab.
Additionally, a benefit of Simulation and the learner centric paradigm is that students are freed from the limitations of lab time. For example, they may only have two or three hours of access to a lab per week with equipment that allows them to perform “real” experimentation. With Simulation, however, students can be located anywhere and perform labs and practice their skills as long as they have a computer or a tablet.
During the real (minimized risk) phase of the lesson, much of the experimentation is done in a manner that is indistinguishable from the pure (totally on a computer screen) simulation. In fact, the instrument control panels (which are displayed on the computer screen) are the same as in real wet labs. The difference lies in the fact that the student must now build the circuit with physical components. The device, which connects to the circuit, minimizes any risk to both the student and the circuit should the student make an error. As a result, the student can experiment and practice their skills with the comfort of knowing that they are unlikely to damage anything or themselves. The device used for this phase can be plugged into any computer, and as a result, the student can perform these activities anywhere and at any time as long as they have with a computer and the device.
The previous phase bridges the pure (totally on a computer screen) simulation experience with the true lab experience. As a result, when students finally begin to experiment in a “real” lab, they have already developed not only a level of comfort with electricity, but also their skills to manipulate and measure it.
This instructional strategy depends on students having access to a computer with the required simulation software and a device known as a “DAQ” which provides a smooth progression between a purely virtual simulation and a real experience. Whereas in a lab environment where the equipment can be shared among a large user base, this strategy is most effective if every student has access to their own personal copy of the software and their own “DAQ” allowing them to perform the experimentation according to their own schedule. The current cost per student is approximately $200 (March 2014).
Students will have an additional learning curve associated with the introduction of a new software tool. There is always the danger of students spending too much time and effort focusing on the technology being used to facilitate the simulated experience rather than on the desired outcomes.
Prior to the lesson proposed here, students must be properly familiarized with the simulation software. Additionally, it is important to frame the experience for the student to bring relevance to the activity and explain how the activity will develop their skills for real world applications.
Teachers or facilitators should mentally prepare their students for the reality that the circuit or simulation may not operate as expected. In fact, it is unlikely to operate correctly the first time. It is important for students to know that these issues are common and that a great deal can be learnt about circuit dynamics while troubleshooting a malfunctioning circuit.