(686f) Analysis of Student Usage on Interactive Simulations

Authors: 
Branch, K., University of Utah
Butterfield, A., University of Utah

We have developed open-source interactive browser-based simulations that model realistic chemical engineering experiments [1]. In these simulations, students are able to adjust several parameters of a system and observe the results. These simulations can be easily implemented into courses as homework assignments, as they contain randomized unknown parameters that students may be required to determine and submit. We also use these tools to prepare students for hands-on design projects involving the same chemical engineering core concepts and theory.

Our simulation code not only records if students correctly determine unknown parameters, but also records the time and location of all mouse movements, clicks, and field alterations. The resulting database of student usage data may be used to determine trends inherent in successful and unsuccessful results, allowing for iterative development of simulations that optimally benefit student learning.

We have incorporated several of these simulations into our department’s newly developed freshman laboratory course, such as a spectrophotometer with batch reaction, a diffusion experiment, and a bioreactor. In this course, the students are required to determine an unknown parameter in the simulations for several of their homework assignments, with the goal of developing a student’s engineering intuition.  For example, in one homework assignment, students are required to deduce mass transfer principles from a simulation modeling diffusion of a dye out of a sphere [2]; namely, they are to determine how the rate of diffusion is affected by both the diameter of the sphere and the diffusivity of the dye. This simulation mimics a student lab assignment in which a number of alginate beads containing a high concentration of dye are put into a beaker of pure water. The concentration of the dye in the water outside of the bead is plotted over time, and later the students use this simulation with real-world data to estimate the diffusivity of their dye.

This process of simulation usage followed by hands-on experimentation has proven to be an effective way to develop a foundation for core chemical engineering concepts within freshmen. The simulations allowed students to discover on their own, using any internet-enabled device, how specific physical parameters can be determined, while going at their own pace, and without wasting valuable lab resources or in-class time.

Preliminary analysis of the student usage data has revealed usage patterns and students’ apparent assumptions about simulation functionality that may be used to improve that functionality. Furthermore, differences in behavior between successful and unsuccessful student attempts may be used to aid in student learning and identify and intervene with struggling students while they are still in the process of working through a problem.

[1] A. Butterfield, “Online Teaching Material,” 2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.che.utah.edu/~tony/OTM/. [Accessed: 10-May-2014].

[2] A. Butterfield, “1-D Mass Transfer in a Sphere,” 2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.che.utah.edu/~tony/OTM/DiffusionSphere/. [Accessed: 10-May-2014].

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