Multimedia Tools Help Students Think Like a Scientist

By: National Center for Technology Innovation and Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd)

If you were to compare the way that many of us learned science in school with the way scientists actually do science, you would likely find few similarities. Often, students in science class are given a set of instructions to follow when setting up an experiment. If they follow the directions precisely, then their experiment will be done 'correctly' and they can fill in their worksheets with the proper answers (Lajoie, 2001). However, the process of scientific exploration is often not solely about 'right answers'. Scientists learn to ask themselves questions — what just happened? Why didn't this work? What can I try differently? And then they continue testing until they learn more.

Scientists may use a variety of sources of information as they formulate and test hypotheses; they may ask peers for advice and collaborate with other researchers halfway around the world; they will likely use computer programs, diagrams, videos, sound files, pictures and models to understand anything from chemical phenomena to fish propulsion methods to the migratory patterns of sea turtles. Yet, as teachers we may ask students to visualize our solar system using a two dimensional diagram or to make inferences about a chemical process that is invisible to the naked eye.

While the ability to visualize is an important part of thinking like a scientist, these methods can be challenging for students, particularly in the early elementary and middle school years. Research has demonstrated that children up to age 14 may rely almost exclusively on sensory information — what they can see, hear, smell, taste and touch — when making observations about matter (Kind, 2004). For example, students may think that liquid that has evaporated has simply 'disappeared' or that substances like dough or grains of sand are not 'solids' in the same way that a tabletop or a block of wood is a solid (Kind, 2004).

Clearly, children do not begin life thinking like scientists. They hold many misconceptions about science that can be difficult to dislodge. As teachers, we may tell a student that a liquid that has evaporated has not 'disappeared', but for students relying on what they can see, this would seem to be impossible. When the invisible is made visible, students can 'see' that their previously held understanding is incorrect and can replace it with a more expert understanding.

Hands-on activities, simulations, interactions with peers and scientists, experimentation and inquiry-based science are all excellent ways to create cognitive dissonance and encourage students to use logical reasoning as opposed to sensory reasoning when examining scientific phenomena. As students conduct experiments, manipulate variables, view representations and models of phenomena and construct hypotheses, they are exposed to opportunities to see how things work and compare what they've observed with what they 'know' from their own experiences. When students are engaged in "actively constructing knowledge from a combination of experience, interpretation and structured interactions with peers and teachers" (Roschelle et al., 2000, 79), they are more likely to gain an expert understanding of science concepts.

One way to expose children to this type of learning is through the use of multimedia tools in the classroom. Working with these tools, teachers can serve as a facilitator of learning rather than the director. When the teacher facilitates student exploration, students become responsible for their own learning and are encouraged to try new things and take risks (Lajoie et al., 2001). Using multimedia in your classroom can assist learners in a variety of ways, by providing:

  • Multiple modalities for representing real-world problems;
  • Adequate information, advice and feedback when and where needed;
  • Opportunities to solve and reason about problems while applying scientific knowledge, and
  • Online resources that reduce memory load and increase time for in-depth thinking (Lajoie et al., 2001, 157).

Multimedia tools can help students make the transition from novice to expert thinking by mimicking the way that scientists think and behave. Moreover, for students with LD, active and visual modes of learning are often a better fit. Many students with LD find visualizing and creating models a more effective way to learn concepts as well as to express their understanding.

Scientists use multiple representations and models

Research conducted by Kozma and Russell (2005) on the daily practice of chemists demonstrated the differences between the way science is taught and the way scientists do science. Looking at the work of professional chemists, the researchers found that scientists relied "heavily on the use of various representations to shape and understand the products of chemical investigations" (410). In the course of a typical day, the chemists used a variety of structural diagrams, chemical equations, instrument printouts and graphs to verify their understanding of a specific process and to help them explain their thinking to their peers (Kozma and Russell, 2005).

Similarly, meteorologists rely on a variety of "verbal, numerical and pictorial representations" (Lowe, 2005, 430) to inform their daily work and make decisions. Practicing meteorologists gathered data from a variety of sources and looked at the same data in multiple forms in the process of making their meteorological analysis (Lowe, 2005). Engineers may use animated diagrams to demonstrate mechanical processes and to model how these systems might work in reality in addition to more static diagrams and blueprints (Hegarty, 2005).

The ways that scientists use multiple media and multiple representations can teach us a great deal about how we might use these methods in the classroom. When using multiple representations, learners are presented with numerous examples which can help them grasp new pieces of information and discern patterns (Rose and Meyer, 2002). If we view science learning as a process of inquiry, investigation and exploration, then it makes sense to make use of representations in much the same way that scientists in the field would — as a tool for exploration and inquiry (Kozma and Russell, 2005).

Digital multimedia can be a great addition to any teacher's toolkit; students can access multiple representations quickly and easily and can self-select those representations that are most relevant to them (Lajoie et al., 2001; Rose and Meyer, 2002). Both teacher and student can manipulate and edit digital media to create their own representations (Rose and Meyer, 2002), resulting in examples that are meaningful and connected to students' prior knowledge (Lajoie et al., 2001).

In addition to allowing students to mirror the processes that scientists themselves engage in, these representations enable students to explore and discuss phenomena and objects that may otherwise be invisible. Research has shown that teaching using multiple representations "not only increases access for students with difficulties but also improves learning generally among all students" (Rose and Meyer, 2002). All students can benefit from visualization tools, but they may be particularly helpful for students with learning disabilities, who may have difficulty with manipulating objects mentally or with connecting ideas (Dalton et al., 1997).

Scientists collaborate with peers and mentors

One of the hallmarks of scientific inquiry and exploration is the process of peer review. Whether these discussions occur as part of the formal process of submitting research for publication or more informally through collaboration, scientists engage in discourse with each other and receive feedback on their work. While students in science class engage in many of these same behaviors, frequently feedback and discussion focus on procedure (steps towards completing an assignment) rather than on the process of developing new ideas and hypotheses.

Students working together on a laboratory experiment will frequently give each other feedback related solely to the steps and apparatus involved in conducting the experiment. In one study observing student pairs as they synthesized a chemical compound, researchers noted that unlike chemists, the discussions of the chemistry students "were focused exclusively on the physical aspects of their experiments. The primary interaction among student lab partners was focused on setting up equipment, trouble shooting procedural problems, and interacting with the physical properties of the reagents they were using" (Kozma and Russell, 411).

Making the transition from 'novice' to 'expert' requires practice, but students using a variety of multimedia tools as part of a rich science curriculum can start to make that transition. Software can be used to prompt students to use scientific language when they record their observations — programs may ask students to choose a 'sentence starter' to begin their written record, such as:

  • I hypothesize that…
  • I observed that…
  • My research shows that…
  • My hypothesis is based on…
  • I will test my hypothesis by…
  • My theory doesn't explain why…
  • A better theory might be…

    (Tan, Yeo and Lim, 2005)

With this scaffolding, students can use these phrases to provide feedback to their peers and to develop new theories. Using collaborative software, students can post their own videos or animations of their work, suggest a theory and ask for feedback from a classmate or even a researcher at a local university. Providing students with these phrases gives them the scientific language they need to give and receive relevant feedback on their work and engage in the same types of discussions scientists have every day. Other multimedia tools may make use of an animated agent or online digital coach that comments on student efforts, provides feedback, answers student questions, or models proper procedure — giving students ready access to an expert as they navigate through an experiment.

While such multimedia tools differ from those that scientists use in the field, they do guide students in developing appropriate language needed to engage in scientific discourse with their peers. These activities serve the dual purpose of teaching students to think like scientists and increasing student comprehension of difficult concepts. Studies have shown that "having students articulate their understanding in their own words leads to the most marked gains in comprehension" (Scholastic, 2006).

Scientists use simulations and virtual laboratories

Many processes in science require scientists to use simulations or virtual laboratories. Some phenomena are simulated because they happen so quickly (protein folding), others are simulated because of ethical concerns (testing new medicines on animals or humans), or because of financial considerations (simulations of fish swimming), while others are simulated because they are impossible to witness (the formation of the solar system). Using simulations or virtual laboratories enables scientists to explore phenomena and test out theories in an environment that they control; students can use these tools in much the same way.

For example, researchers at the American Diabetes Association recently teamed up with a software company to design a virtual mouse in order to study possible treatments for Type 1 diabetes. The mouse simulation allows researchers to "test the effects of new drugs on the virtual animal's cells, tissues, organs and physiological processes" (Gartner, 2005). While these models were not able to replace all phases of animal testing, they did enable scientists to complete much of their research virtually and do fewer tests on live animals.

Students in science classes can use simulations and virtual labs for many of the same reasons as professional scientists. Using virtual laboratories, students can conduct experiments using materials that would be cost prohibitive for a school to purchase. Students can engage in simulations of animal population models to observe at what point the number of animals becomes too high for the ecosystem to support. In addition, simulations and virtual laboratories can provide access to students with special needs. A student with a visual impairment or physical disability may be unable dissect a frog with the rest of the class, because of difficulties making precise cuts with a scalpel. That same student may be able to easily complete the dissection when using a virtual tool. While many technology tools provide access, simulations and virtual laboratories perhaps provide more access than any other multimedia tool in science. They provide access for all students in allowing them to participate in activities they would not otherwise have access to (DNA testing, diagnosing heart defects) and they provide access to students with disabilities by offering them another avenue to participation in lab work.

Multimedia tools encourage scientific thinking

"There have been increasing efforts among science educators to move students away from learning about science towards learning to be scientists." (Tan, Yeo and Lim, 367)

As science education begins to shift away from merely learning about science to doing science and being scientists, educators need tools at their disposal that can help students make that shift. Students enter the classroom with a number of misconceptions about science that can be difficult to dislodge. Multimedia tools can help students visualize and experience these phenomena to gain a deeper understanding of complex processes. They can also be extremely helpful for students with disabilities who may learn better visually. Additionally, multimedia science tools allow students to mimic the behavior of professional scientists: exploring theories, testing hypotheses, collaborating with peers, viewing multiple representations and creating models. Multimedia programs can be a valuable tool in encouraging students to develop scientific thinking.


Below are a few examples of multimedia software that can encourage students to 'think like scientists' (see more resources online in the CITEd article, Using Multimedia to Help Students Learn Science).

Games and simulations

Virtual labs

Collaborative tools



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Barnett M., Yamagata-Lynch L., Keating T., Barab S. A, & Hay K. E. (2005). Using virtual reality computer models to support student understanding of astronomical concepts. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 333-56.

Dalton, B., Morocco C. C., Tivnan T., Rawson Mead, P. L. (1997). Supported inquiry science: teaching for conceptual change in urban and suburban science classrooms. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(6), 670-684.

Gartner J. (2005). Virtual vermin saves lab rats. Wired Magazine, May 20, 2006.

Hegarty M. (2005). Multimedia learning about physical systems. In RE Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kind V. (2000). Beyond appearances: students' misconceptions about basic chemical ideas: A report prepared for the Royal Society of Chemistry, London: Education Division, Royal Society of Chemistry.

Kozma, R, & Russell J. (2005). Multimedia learning of chemistry. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, 409-428. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lajoie, S. P., Lavigne, N. C., Guerrera, C., & Munsie, S. D. (2001). Constructing knowledge in the context of BioWorld. Instructional Science, 29, 155-186.

Lowe R. K. (2005). Multimedia learning of meteorology. In RE Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roschelle, J. M., Pea, R. D., Hoadley, C. M., Gordin, D. N., & Means, B. M. (2000). Changing how and what children learn in school with computer-based technologies. The Future of Children, 10(2), 76-101.

Rose, D. H., & Meyer A. (2002). Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age. Alexandria, VA: Association for Curriculum Development.

Scholastic. (2006). Teaching science for understanding: the research behind Science Court. Retrieved on January 9, 2007 from http://www.tomsnyder.com/reports/SC_Booklet.pdf

Tan, S. C., Yeo, A. C. J., Lim, W. Y. (2005). Changing epistemology of science learning through inquiry with computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 367-86.