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Computer Simluations by NYU Steinhardt's Jan Plass, a Catalyst for Chemistry Learning for Urban and Rural High Schoolers

May 21, 2012

Thanks to Jan Plass, kinetic molecular theory can be as easy as making a cup of hot chocolate.

Following a four-year study of 357 rural students, 361 students in urban areas, in a total of 25 high school classrooms in New York City and rural Texas, Plass’ research found that well-designed computer simulations are an effective tool in boosting comprehension of chemistry subject matter including topics of diffusion, gas laws and phase change.

“Our goal was to focus on underserved and underprivileged learners as many of these students were not introduced to important chemical principals in their middle school science classes,” Plass said. “At the high school level in particular, success in science classes is seen as opening doors to science careers as well as promoting scientific literacy – a prerequisite for being an informed citizen. We designed our simulations specifically for those learners whose previous experience of chemistry was very limited.”

The study was funded by a $1.35 million grant by the Institute of Education Sciences to Jan L. Plass, Catherine Milne, and Trace Jordan of NYU Steinhardt along with Bruce Homer of CUNY Graduate Center, to study simulations aimed at enhancing chemistry learning for a broad range of learners.

Starting in 2008, Plass and his research team partnered with high school teachers and students to design and develop a sequence of simulations for use in high school chemistry classrooms based on theories of learning, research in cognition and multimedia, and best practices in science education. Using narrative and visual icons, such as flames to signify heat, the simulations told a story of phase change in the characters attempt to heat hot water to make hot chocolate.

“Kinetic molecular theory requires an understanding that matter is composed of particles in constant motions,” Plass explained. “Multimedia can communicate this idea in a visually dynamic way that is not available in static resources such as textbooks.”

The results of Plass' effectiveness studies illustrated that students in both urban and rural settings with use of the simulations, led to better performance in chemistry compared to learning without simulations.

“This study demonstrates practical principles for the effective design and use of computer simulations in science classrooms,” Plass explained. “These types of simulations do contribute to the understanding of complicated subject matter and are examples of digital tools that can foster learning of science knowledge that students need to succeed academically and beyond.”

Plass is co-director of the Games for Learning Institute, Paulette Goddard Professor of Digital Media and Learning Sciences at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and the founding director of the Center for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education (CREATE).

To learn more about the Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technology in Education (CREATE), visit:

To learn more about NYU Steinhardt, visit:

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
NYUToday-feature, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

Type: Press Release

Computer Simluations by Jan Plass, a Catalyst for Chemistry Learning for Urban and Rural High Schoolers

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