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Student B.S. Engineering, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art


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How can computer models help us build intuition?

The use of visual diagrams to explain and understand difficult concepts is as old as history itself, but in the twentieth century, for the first time, engineers and scientists were able to enlist the help of computational tools to represent systems with greater clarity and detail. While computers, with the right peripherals, are able to present data to all the senses, in two or three dimensions and through time, perhaps their greatest pedagogical virtue is their interactivity. People learn by doing: young children internalize Newton's Laws long before their first formal physics class by manipulating the world around them. Computers offer the promise of similar interactivity for systems which are less readily accessible, or even entirely esoteric. In my Bioelectricity class, for example, we have been using computer simulations of the complicated Hodgkin-and-Huxley membrane equations to gain insight into neural reactions to various experimental stimuli. How can computer models be used to learn, understand and ultimately build intuition about systems in nature and science?


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    Feb 16 2012: I never finished it, but this is the beginning of a classroom simulation, relying on the notion that knowledge is transferred between different students in the room (or between the teachers in the room and the students).


    There is a lot of work that would need to be done to work on this simulation (it has some pretty serious bugs at this point). For example, it ignores the idea that given the right conditions, students can spontaneously discover ideas on their own (without relying on outside information necessarily) and the variables related to transmission of knowledge are incomplete. It is an unfinished attempt to look at information transfer theory as it would apply to education, and to see if we can gain any insights as to appropriate arrangements of classes (and pedagogical styles) based purely on information theory.

    Obviously, I'm sharing this example as a sample of something we could attempt to use the power of computing to solve (whether we would be successful is entirely a different matter).
    • Feb 18 2012: Hey David, I think this is an interesting way to try and apply information theory using a computer model. I can imagine a simulation like this helping a teacher build intuition in how they should position themselves and students in a classroom. In the related talk about complexity leading to simplicity, Berlow talks about use of good visualization tools and embracing complexity to try and find better, simpler answers to problems. I see a simulation such as yours as an example of what Berlow is talking about: trying to define simpler, adjustable variables to solve the complex problem of how to best teach in a classroom.
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      Feb 19 2012: This is a really neat simulation, thank you for sharing. I have studied information theory mostly from a coding theory point of view and have never really thought about it in a social setting. Personally, this simulation definitely helps me gain intuition about the topic of information theory. When studying error-correction techniques (for a communication channel) I often lose sight of the overall goal of trying to increase throughput and quantify the transmission of information and get too caught up in the math. This model has shown me that a mathematical model just as complex as the ones I've studied can be explained to somebody with no a priori knowledge of information theory through a computer simulation of students absorbing knowledge in a classroom setting.

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