Using Virtual Manipulative (VM) Apps to Build Basic Circuit-building Procedural and Conceptual Knowledge in Young Children

Garry Falloon, Macquarie University Part of CW17

The use of virtual manipulatives (VMs) has been relatively commonplace in mathematics education for many years, yet their use for science learning has been less frequent, and generally limited to virtual laboratories or simulations used to support specific investigations or experiments, or ‘make visible’ to students difficult to grasp or experience scientific phenomena. However, with the advent of low cost mobile devices and an array of science-focused apps, there is an opportunity to leverage the potential of VMs to introduce students to abstract and practical science ideas at a younger age. This presentation outlines stage 1 of a study undertaken with new entrant children (5 year olds) in New Zealand, where a range of VM apps were used to introduce simple electrical circuit-building procedures and electricity concepts. Stage 2 of the project investigated whether or not the children could transfer any knowledge developed using the VMs into practical circuit building tasks using real equipment.

The teaching component of the study followed a guided discovery approach that provided minimal initial teacher direction. ‘Can You?’ circuit-building challenges were used to introduce different circuit types and concepts, and engage the children in each of the five, 40-minute teaching and research sessions. Empirical data were collected using an iPad display recorder app, and analysed for evidence of procedure and concept knowledge-building related to circuit construction, the function of circuit components, and ‘what happens’ in a circuit (ie., current flow, resistance etc.).

This presentation will share outcomes from stage 1 of the study, that suggests VM apps may provide teachers with a useful resource to build basic electricity concepts in early years education. It will present and discuss illustrative data highlighting how the students used the VMs to build understanding of different circuit designs and components, and how current was controlled.

Keywords: electricity, virtual manipulatives, VMs, apps, concepts, circuits, young children

Garry is presently Professor of Digital Learning and the Fairfax Foundation Chair of Teacher Education at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia

Past research activities include exploring the effect of app design on student learning pathways, technology-facilitated school-scientist partnerships, the use of synchronous virtual classrooms in supporting distance students, online learning environment design, and the design and use of digital learning objects for learning. Presently Garry is engaged in school-based research on 3D printing and Makerspaces, building computational thinking in the early years, and using apps for developing science procedural and conceptual understandings and communicating outcomes from science inquiries in the middle school.

He teaches in Macquarie University’s HDR and teacher education programs, and is engaged with the NSW Department of Education’s Hub Schools initiative.