Virtual vs. Physical Materials in Early Science Instruction: Transitioning to an Autonomous Tutor for Experimental Design
The spread of computer based instructional materials makes it important to determine the relative merits and effects of virtual materials vs. physical materials in early science instruction. In this paper we first lay out a framework for comparing key aspects of this virtual-physical issue, and then we describe three studies addressing it. In two studies with middle school children we found that children using virtual and physical materials made equally large gains in their knowledge while learning a complex procedure (control of variables) under conditions of direct instruction (Study 1) and while learning about specific physical effects in a engineering design challenge in a discovery learning content (Study 2). These results suggest that simply replacing the physical materials with virtual materials does not affect the amount of learning or transfer when other aspects of the instruction are preserved. In the third study we describe our progress in creating a virtual tutor for teaching experimental design procedures and concepts to middle school children.