If Simulations are Good, Why Aren’t We All Using Them?
By Jose J. Padilla
We often think of simulation modeling as an engineering/science field, but more and more it is a new frontier for multi- and interdisciplinary research that impacts our understanding of real-world events from natural disasters and migration dynamics to the rise and fall of religion in ancient societies. It seems simulations are useful and may provide an entry point to STEM education, so why aren’t we using them everywhere?
One reason is the high barrier to entry. Simulations are usually created by experts for experts. Simulations rely on a diversity of subject areas, but generally require comprehensive knowledge of certain topics. For instance, modeling the impact of poverty in society requires knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, and political science. Teams that build these models often have very specialized skill sets, and the complex concepts are difficult to explain to non-experts. As such, we need to get simulations out of the hands of experts into the hands of everyone. This means, among other things, developing easy to use tools, modeling systems people know or care about, and teaching simulation in STEM activities from K-12.
Making Tools Easy to Use
The first step toward accessibility is to interrogate the ability of simulation tools to be intuitive for non-experts. Tools are not only complicated to use but in several cases expensive to acquire. Luckily, these barriers are slowly disappearing. Tools are becoming easier to use as we become better at identifying what we find relevant to simulate. For instance, The CLOUDES environment (cloudes.me) provides an easy to use platform for creating simulations of queuing systems (i.e. discrete event simulations). In the picture below, the simulation is a game developed with high school students that captures a group of students attempting to escape detention.
Escaping Detention Simulation Model in CLOUDES. Educators can rely on game-based narratives to make simulation learning more engaging.
Tools can be simple to operate on topics that are simple to understand which leads us to the next step…
Simulating “Stuff” We Know Something About
One key way of getting people familiar with simulation is identifying topics with which we are already familiar with modeling in human activity. According to Paul Fishwick: “One of the characteristics of being human is to model. In our history, we began with representations of animals made from natural materials, and painted on cave walls. We also made regular marks on animal bones. While the modern accounting of these products is art (animal representations) and mathematics (bone marks), a more comprehensive understanding points to modeling in both cases.”
“One of the characteristics of being human is to model.” – PAUL FISHWICK
Further, we “run” simulations often —not in a computer, but in our heads. We also adjust our decisions based on our interpretation of the outcome of those simulations: If I take route 1 and it has traffic, I can make a U-turn and take route 2. If I take route 2 and it has traffic, I can deviate from route 3 and take the interstate. So, if we have an innate capability of creating representations of real/imaginary things (models) and running mental simulations, how hard would it be to transition to a more formal modeling environment? How do we capitalize on the potential benefits?
Simply, we can simulate systems with which we are all aware. We are familiar with queuing systems, for instance. We know how these systems work, to some level of detail, and can explore potential solutions to inefficiencies through simulations. We see people waiting in line at the grocery store, airports, and in fast food restaurants. We can also rely on interesting stories or narratives that not only provide simulation training but also fun and engagement. Simpler narratives (games, movies, stories in general) are useful for learning about simulation creation to keep younger students engaged.
Story card from Escaping Detention. Instead of, or in addition to, using real systems/phenomena to teach students about simulations, they can learn simulation concepts and skills using fun narratives.
Providing Early Simulation Education
STEM efforts have made great strides in developing students’ programming/coding skills. Rather than learning about simulations at university, I believe the creation of simulation has more benefits the earlier it is introduced to students. This requires a shift in thinking about what simulation modeling is for: particularly as a way to organize and discipline our thoughts and develop problem solving skills. It’s not just a computer skill, but a way to structure how we think about the world and its challenges. In a more holistic sense, K-12 education could benefit from simulation activities that familiarize students and parents with the ways simulation models bring together STEM and non-STEM skills and knowledge.
Because of its complexity, simulation modeling may seem like a daunting subject area for young students. Through our outreach work with middle and high school students, we have realized that simulation modeling is natural to them in terms of computer implementation. Challenges usually lie in abstracting systems and keeping them engaged.
Potential Benefits of Simulation Modeling
Exposure to simulation modeling activities familiarizes learners with useful skills beyond programming/coding such as:
- Problem identification: isolating the issue that needs understanding/solving
- Abstraction: what are the minimal parts and relations among parts of the problem that needs to be considered
- Computer implementation: what are the parts and relations that can be coded/programmed on a computer and run
- Data collection: what data is needed for the simulation to provide meaningful insight
- Insight generation: what is the meaning of the output of the simulation
Additionally, simulation modeling has added benefits like exposing learners to STEM concepts in mathematics, logic, probability, and statistics. Framing simulation learning in terms of storylines and narratives also gives students a sense of control over their learning environment, motivating them to explore the possibilities of simulation more deeply and inspiring the application of logic, math, and science knowledge.
Simulation Education Today Could Translate to Innovative Simulation Solutions Tomorrow
Simulation modeling isn’t widespread in many K-12 learning environments or in the workplace yet, but the benefits of inclusion would be tremendous. It’s not just about students or small businesses employees becoming simulationists, but also the value of bringing together holistic inclusion of ALL the subjects that new modelers are interested in. Through modeling and simulating activities, we can create a generation of new and innovative simulationists who explore the world in ways we cannot yet know. We have seen the benefits of programming in the last few years and the impact it has had on younger generations. I can’t wait to see how a new generation of simulationists of all ages changes how we create and think about modeling and simulation.
Jose Padilla (@jojpa) is a research faculty at Old Dominion University. His research focuses on the conceptualization of tools and frameworks to improve the design, development, and learning of simulations. He is the lead of the Simulate to Create research group at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC).