Introduction | Your first interface | Building a model | Advanced features | Resources

1.2 Why should I use simulations?

Before you go on to look at how to use the JeLSIM eSim Builder in detail, it's a good idea to first understand why you would want to use it, and what you can expect it to do.

At a very basic level, a simulation is a model of a system. Any system, large or small, can be modelled as long as it can be described using an algorithm. The system may be an actual physical system (e.g. a nuclear power plant) or a theoretical one (e.g. the molecular model of an ideal gas. A simulation is usually based upon a mathematical algorithm, it has inputs that can be manipulated and fed into the model to see what outputs are produced.

Because most simulations are based upon mathematical models, they are ideally suited to being programmed to run on computers.

What is a computer simulation?

Computer simulations are software applications that enable a user to run a model of a system. Users can interact with computer systems, setting input variables and observing what changes occur to outputs. They can dynamically explore the model domain in real time, start and stop the model, make changes to test hypotheses, and experiment in a non-prescriptive fashion.

It is this interactive, dynamic and open nature of computer-based simulations that makes them excellent teaching tools. They put users in charge of their own learning, engage them, allow them to construct their own understanding of a system, and create valuable individual learning experiences.

Simulations differ from animations because animations do not use any underlying model and values are not based upon 'real' values. This difference means that simulations can enable a user to interact dynamically to update variables and watch real effects while the simulation is actually running.

Why use simulations for teaching?

Learners learn best by doing and forming concepts through experience. With simulations you can create systems with which learners can interact and explore to gain a greater understanding of a system. If learners do not understand points, they can try experimenting with the system for themselves and observe the outcomes.

Simulations provide:

  • Exploration - learners can explore domains that would otherwise be too time-consuming, expensive or dangerous.
  • Focus - they facilitate the removal of complexity and detail from a model, focussing only on the aspects of the model that are most relevant to the learning.
  • Visualisation - they make it easier to visualise dynamic or complex behaviour.
  • Motivation - they motivate by providing context and engagement, encourage active involvement, and arouse interest.
  • Control - learners can control timing and detail, they can explore and experiment, hypothesize and test.
  • Practice - to address misconceptions and allow learners to learn from their mistakes.

Why use JeLSIM simulations?

Because simulations provide an interactive environment in which to explore real, complex systems they can be a powerful resource for teaching. Traditionally, simulations have not been specifically designed for educational use and have tended to be expensive, inflexible, and uninspiring.

The eSim builder provides a set of tools to quickly and easily to create flexible, simple and exciting simulations.

JeLSIM simulations consist of two parts:

  • A Java model of the system
  • A visualisation (also called an interface)

The model must be produced by a Java programmer, but the visualisations can easily be developed by non-programmers using the JeLSIM Interface Builder.

There are two main advantages to separating the model and the visualisation:

  • Members of the development team can make appropriate contributions throughout the simulation production process. Once the model has been programmed, interfaces can be easily produced and maintained by anyone in the development team without additional programmer effort. This makes the development of simulations a real team process.
  • Unlimited visualisations can be created for a single model, which facilitates re-use. For example, you could create different visualisations for different levels of learning, different styles, different depths. Interfaces are easy to create and update - anything on the user interface can be customised (e.g. colour, location, size, etc.) - data can be visualised in different ways, levels of detail easily tailored, and straightforward inclusion of text and graphics.

An added advantage of JeLSIM simulations is that they are web-based Java applets, so they will run on any platform as long as it has a browser that supports Java.