©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Learning and Teaching with Interactive Simulations


John Zola and Andri Ioannidou

It is an old maxim of teaching that “to really learn something, try to teach it.” This is one reason we use jigsaw learning and other cooperative group activities in our classrooms. When students have the responsibility of transferring their understanding of content to others, they realize that this task demands a far deeper level of understanding than what might be needed to complete an essay or multiple choice test. It is this notion that is at the heart of our experiences with students developing computer-based social studies simulations and web pages.

This article explains how students at New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado, have come to far richer understanding of social studies content by building simulations and embedding them in web pages of their own design and creation. Our students have created simulations on topics ranging from labor strikes and protest marches, to the growth of suburbs following WWII, to the impact of the automobile on 20th century society. In nearly every case, the students who developed these simulations were NOT computer savvy, in any sort of computer club, or particularly fond of computers at all.


School Setting

New Vista is a small public school of choice that was opened in 1993 with the expressed purpose of “breaking the mold of traditional high school education.”
Students of all abilities opt to attend this school, which is implementing many of the insights from educational research over the past 25 years. Not an “alternative school,” New Vista aspires to push high standards for all students and to nurture the individual gifts each student brings to the learning process. It works to accomplish these goals by valuing diversity, creating authentic and personal learning experiences, integrating the community into the school and the school into the community, exhibiting student work, and fostering a full-inclusion model of special education.

Teachers at New Vista are encouraged to “teach from their passions” and to offer a wide variety of courses that provide “entry points” for students to engage in the work of school. Thus, the social studies curriculum includes course offerings such as: A People’s History of the United States, Urban History of Los Angeles, World History Through Human Rights, The History and Literature of the Holocaust, Chinese Studies, The Harlem Renaissance, and Sociology. The course in which we first experimented with computer simulations was Protest and Reform in U.S. History. This class takes topics such as the American Revolution, abolition, suffrage, and the social movements of the 1960s and examines them as protest movements and efforts at social or political reform. Subsequently, we worked with students in a class on 20th Century Social History.

At New Vista High School, students are expected to exhibit their learning in each of their classes through the creation of final projects, rather than by taking tests. Students usually have choices in both the topic and format for these research-based projects. They might be exhibits combining narrative and graphic forms on posterboard, videotapes, performances, traditional papers, or any other format the student invents. A unique feature of both the Protest and Reform and 20th Century Social History classes was that students had the option of demonstrating their learning by developing computer simulations. As students worked on their projects, it became increasingly clear that for some students, these interactive simulations were far more engaging than the more static posterboards that students traditionally complete.


Developing Simulations in History Classes

It is usually perceived that math and science classes are the most appropriate for introducing technology in general and simulation technology in particular. The fact that social phenomena are usually more complex and therefore more difficult to simulate than physical phenomena may be part of the explanation. Interested in exploring what could come out of using simulation technology in the social studies, the authors of this article (one a classroom teacher and the other a university researcher) worked with the researchers and developers of the AgentSheets simulation-authoring tool to bring the power of simulations into history classes. AgentSheets is an authoring tool that allows casual computer users with no formal programming training to build interactive simulations and turn them into Java applets that can be published on the Web.1


A Model Project: the UFW Grape Boycott

The first attempt by New Vista students to do a computer simulation as their final project involved a group of three girls who were initially intimidated by technology. They selected as their topic the United Farm Workers (UFW) Grape Boycott seen in the context of the Chicano and Latino civil rights movement. The project, as the students defined it, included building a web page consisting of a boycott simulation applet, and developing links to related websites to serve as a small virtual library on the subject.

In order to find out about the history of the boycott and of the United Farm Workers movement, the students did some initial research in the library and on the Web. Once they understood the basic facts about the boycott, they began to create their simulation. Presenting a complex social phenomenon such as the boycott without making the simulation overwhelmingly complex was a challenging project for these teenagers. Their first task was to choose a representative set of events that could be simulated. The students decided to illustrate the relationships among all the people involved in the boycott: farmers, workers, labor organizers, and consumers. Consequently, they created a simulation that represented individual people such as workers picking grapes, farmers who own the grape fields, consumers buying the grapes at the town’s market, and Cesar Chavez influencing the consumers to participate in the boycott.

As these students developed their boycott simulation, they also created web pages (an example can be found at www.cs.colorado.edu/~l3d/systems/agentsheets/New-Vista/grape-boycott/) with historical information about the subject and links to related websites. These web pages provided a critical connection between the course content and the simulation technology, since a simulation consisting of brightly colored icons moving on a screen does not convey much meaning to its intended audience unless it has been situated in an informative context.

This initial work with simulations was quite successful. Students and staff who viewed the demonstration of the simulation and web page at New Vista’s quarterly “Exhibition Day” were extremely impressed. In fact, a language arts teacher arranged to work with the same software to develop virtual worlds in a class on Literature of the Grotesque! Perhaps more importantly, these first simulations served as both teaching tools and models for the Protest and Reform class the following year.2


More Simulations Take Off

In the Protest and Reform class, students first “played” with simulations and then conceptualized their own projects. Among the topics students chose for their simulations and web pages were the Kent State demonstrations (1970), the Ludlow Mine Massacre (1913-1914), the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), and the Flint, Michigan, Sit-down Strike (1936). Once again, these simulations were developed by students without extensive computer skills, yet who needed to demonstrate the depth of understanding that is necessary to simulate historical events. For example, the students who simulated the demonstrations at Kent State needed to understand exactly how the National Guard and students moved in relation to one another, and to have that reflected in their simulation.

During the present school year, another attempt was made to integrate simulation technology into the social studies curriculum. In this case, it was in a 20th Century Social History class. There, two groups of students created simulations to illustrate the impact of the automobile on American society and the development of suburbs. The unique feature of each of these is a high degree of interactivity, that is, the ability of the user to manipulate features of the simulation to examine different elements of it and to play out different “what if” scenarios. We have found that the greater the degree of interactivity, the greater the interest of the user and the greater the usefulness as a teaching tool.


The Learning Benefits of
Computer Simulations

The process of building a computer
simulation, running it, and observing the consequences often leads to new questions. When the Grape Boycott students programmed the workers to get angry and refuse to work, the result was confusing. What really happened? How could there be grapes in the market when the workers were on strike? To answer these questions, the students went back to historical sources. They learned that when the Mexican and Filipino workers went on strike, farmers hired undocumented immigrant workers. The students added information to their simulation in order to reflect this new piece of knowledge. In this case, building the simulation provided a focus for group discussion that pushed the students’ ideas beyond their initial conceptions.

Collaboration also played an important role in this project. Initially intimidated by the computer, students found the task of creating a simulation less daunting when they all worked together, sharing ideas and helping each other out with the programming. The dual tasks of building the simulation and creating the website allowed members of the group to distribute the workload among themselves according to their individual interests. At the same time, communication among the group members working on the different tasks needed to be maintained in order for the group to produce a coherent final artifact. Finally, collaboration allowed the group to create a more complete project than any individual could have produced alone.

Creating a simulation such as the Grape Boycott requires students to learn about the history behind the simulated subject at a level of understanding that goes well beyond that of typical high school projects. When building simulations, students do not have the option of mindless cutting and pasting of information as they do when they create a posterboard or a report. To create a simulation, students must form a deep understanding of the underlying principles of the topic. They must decide which aspects of a phenomenon or scenario are most significant and worth simulating. After discarding the less significant details, students must choose representations for the simulation agents and decide on rules to represent the behavior of individual actors as well as the relationships among them. All these tasks demand significant intellectual effort by students.

The high-school students themselves became aware that creating simulations helped them learn about the boycott in a different way, as illustrated by their remarks:

Claire: I didn’t know anything about the boycott before. Having to apply it to the technology made me get into it more and understand it fully so that I could have it come out correct.

John: More so or differently so than if you had created a posterboard?

Susana: You had to know more because you couldn’t leave out things. So if you didn’t know everything you couldn’t do it.

Steph: It’s not like you can copy it out of an encyclopedia and put it on the posterboard.

Mara: It wasn’t just boring writing stuff down; we got to interact with what we were doing.

Steph: [making the simulation] totally made you apply what you know towards what you’re doing!

Susana: I took this class just for history; I didn’t know it was gonna be anything with computers, but now that I did the whole computer thing, it’s changing my daily life cause I used to hate computers and now I don’t.


The Challenges of This Technology

While at first glance, math and science classes seem more appropriate for applications of technology in schools, employing computer simulations in social science classes can support and enhance the learning experience. The combination of social studies content with simulation technology can be enticing and effective, as well as an alternative way for students to explore topics relevant to the class. However, whereas simulations are good candidates for exploring historical phenomena in ways that are not possible to experiment in the real world, they are rarely, if at all, used in K-12 social studies classrooms. Social studies teachers appear not to see a connection between their subject and simulation technology.

Teachers know a lot about educational content, but often, very little about technology. Technology developers, on the other hand, know a lot about technology but little about content. In isolation, each party has a difficult time envisioning what an educationally valuable simulation might look like. The complex design problems involved in creating social simulations require more knowledge than any single person can possess. It is, therefore, important for teachers, researchers, and students to work in synergy to brainstorm good mappings of their existing knowledge of the topic to a computer simulation.

Finally, while building simulations is a useful pedagogical activity with high gains for the builders, the fact remains that building simulations from scratch is a difficult task. We addressed this problem by providing students with a base to start with. AgentSheets provides its users with mechanisms to share their agents via a web-based repository called the Behavior Exchange (www.agentsheets.com/behavior-exchange.html). Having a base to start with, such as the example agents found in the Behavior Exchange, is a great instrument for scaffolding the simulation building process. Scaffolding in this context is a process that enables students to go through a smooth transition from using existing simulation agents to designing their own.



There is no question that allowing students to simulate complex social studies content can serve powerful learning and motivational goals. In our case, students who had not been interested in computers or social studies combined the two to create significant final projects. Additionally, the teacher of the class has used the products created by students as teaching tools. The combination of simulation development and web page authoring is a powerful one. The content needed to create the simulation provides the foundation for the web page; and the web page provides a rich context within which to embed the simulation. Together, students create powerful demonstrations of their understanding of social studies content and processes.

By embedding their simulations in a web page, students not only provided a context for greater understanding of their topic, but also created an external audience beyond the teacher and fellow classmates. A physical posterboard has a limited audience, whereas a simulation applet on the Web can have a much wider audience, and this helps raise the standards for the final project. What we did not anticipate was the impact the notion of a web audience would have on the motivation of the students. On the subject of creating content for the Web, one of them characteristically remarked:

Steph: I think that’s so cool! When you told me we were doing web pages, I was like ‘whatever’; it didn’t even click, and then I saw it on the internet and I was like ‘oh my god, so many people are gonna see this!’ That’s so cool! I just think it’s so cool that I can tell my dad ‘look up this address’ and he’ll see my project. Cause he wanted to see it, but I didn’t know how he’d be able to. I presented, but he couldn’t come see it.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of our projects was that students were able to exhibit their work in such a way that interesting conversations were sparked, both in the classroom and in a wider community. Since their publication on the Web, they have been accessed by a number of people, including professors and teachers who have already used them in their classrooms, and journalists (in Germany, no less) who have written about them.

All this in the classroom of a computer novice who feels most comfortable with word processing and e-mail! Yet, with experience, we have learned to create sufficient scaffolding for students to handle the complexity of creating simulations from scratch. The facility with which students adapted to the technology is nothing less than astounding. As Claire, one of the students who created the Grape Boycott project, put it: “I don’t get into technology, I don’t get into history, but I like the combination of the two!”


1. A. Repenning, A. Ioannidou and J. Ambach, “Learn to Communicate and Communicate to Learn,” Journal of Interactive Media in Education [www-jime.open.ac.uk/98/7, 98(7)], 1998; A. Repenning and T. Sumner, “AgentSheets: A Medium for Creating Domain-Oriented Visual Languages,” IEEE Computer 28, no. 3 (1995): 17-25. A. Ioannidou, A. Repenning, and J. Zola, “Posterboards or Java Applets?” in A. Bruckman, M. Guzdial, J. Kolodner, and A. Ram, eds., International Conference of the Learning Sciences 1998 (Atlanta, GA: Association of the Advancement of Computing in Education, 1998), 152-159.

2. G. Cherry, A. Ioannidou, C. Rader, C. Brand, and A. Repenning, “Simulations for Lifelong Learning,” in Proceedings of NECC (National Educational Computing Conference (Atlantic City, NJ: National Educational Computing Association, 1999).


John Zola teaches social studies at New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado. He can be contacted at jzola@bvsd.k12.co.us. Andri Ioannidou is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Center for LifeLong Learning and Design, and a senior project manager at AgentSheets Inc. Her research interests include educational uses of technology, end-user programming, and interactive simulations. She can be contacted at andri@cs.colorado.edu.