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Modelling Tools for Education

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This article is about the possibility of creating free online modelling tools for use in education. This would allow people to learn about a subject by modelling it. The semantic web makes it possible to provide tools and applications to allow modelling and collaboration at low cost. This could also aid engineers and scientists in communication with the public.

Many people who are experts in their field have insufficient time to learn programming, but still want to model the problems they need to tackle in their main occupation or learning. They try to achieve this aim on an ad hoc basis by piecing together information they hold in documents, sketches, spreadsheets, and that's available in systems provided for them by their IT supplier. Holding information in assorted documents is not conductive to efficient sharing and reuse of information. Dependence on information systems that are supplied and customised only by an IT department removes control from the domain expert.

The problems that have developed as a result of the above situations are -

o The skill set of engineers in the UK does not match what is required by industry. Industry wants engineers who can solve problems as a team but most modelling tools are complex, they are all different from each other, and so need specific training, These tools don't share information easily or encourage enough collaboration.

o Because of the problem above, universities are torn between teaching the theoretical underpinning of engineering, and the practical skills of modelling problems. If easy to use collaborative modelling tools become available, universities can teach theory and allow students to apply it in case studies, thereby incorporating both research and practice in their projects.

o Researchers become isolated from lecturers and vice versa as there are insufficient cheap and easy to use collaboration tools that can be used for both research and teaching. There is a need for new modelling tools for teaching that researchers can develop, and lecturers can then also be involved in an interesting research project.

o There are too few tools available for early stage modelling of engineering problems such as a new product design, when there is insufficient information for tools such as CAD (Computer Aided Design) and Finite Element Analysis.

o There is a large tools gap between those an engineer or student might use for simpler problems (such as spreadsheets) and the high end expensive tools such as CAD. This leaves no path for students and engineers to improve their modelling skills systematically and cheaply.

o The public do not understand science and engineering sufficiently, partly because there are too few modelling tools that can readily be accessed to act as a communication aid to the public using interactive technologies.

A solution to these problems is to supply people with the open source tools they need to become end user modellers. This can be part of an overall aim to enable and encourage end user programming and so release the capabilities possessed by domain experts in modelling their problems. This can enable a much faster iterative process of model development, visualisation and rework to enable better product design. To enable this it is important to provide a modelling environment that will cost nothing to use and that will have examples, explanations and instructions together with a high level user interface to maximise ease of use, and minimise the need for programming skills. Then this would be ready for widespread use in teaching and for student projects, the first step is to prototype the modelling technologies.

Such a project should begin by creating web based models for problem solving in partnership with industry. This learning materials should be made available for widespread use. At present there are not enough educational materials provided by universities (other than the Open University) as open access rather than in internal university E-Learning environments. The modelling project could begin with a single university or a small group and particular subjects and broaden by promoting the use of the modelling system in other universities, colleges and companies through national educational and business associations. To achieve these aims lecturers and students should be involved in the creation of the modelling system and use of this system (depending on the course and the skills of those involved in it). A useful aim would be to use the modelling system to promote engineering, and engineering solutions to problems (environmental problems for example) to a sceptical public who see the profession as poorly paid and dirty, 'House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report science and society' [1], and remote from the public [2]. This dissemination could include schools libraries, and media.

These aims are influenced by the theory of constructionism explained in [3], this involves understanding problems by modelling them.


[1] Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report Ch 2:Public Attitudes and Values-Attitudes to engineering 2.39.

[2] Canavan B, Magill J, Love D, 2002, A Study of the Factors Affecting Perception of Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) in Young People, International Conference on Engineering Education, August 18-21, 2002, Manchester, U.K.

[3] Resnick, M., 1996, Distributed Constructionism, Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Northwestern University - http://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/Distrib-Construc.html.

I have a home page at http://www.cems.uwe.ac.uk/~phale/ that explains my PhD research related to this subject and has examples.

I also have a Modelling page at http://www.cems.uwe.ac.uk/amrc/seeds/Modelling.htm



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