... ATE SHOWCASE
Igniting a SPARK
ATE simulation program underscores
the value of guided practice
BY JOHN CHAMBERLAIN,
PAUL HORWITZ, AL KOON,
AND TRUDI LORD
As a teacher, there is a certain feeling you get when you look around the room and realize a lesson is going great. The students are attentive and interested. They nod their heads with clear understanding and engage in discussion. It’s clear by looking in their eyes that an idea is taking hold. Then it comes time for a quiz or a lab—and the bottom falls out. A student uses the wrong component,
overworks the machinery, or omits a crucial step in procedure.
All educators know from experience how easy it is to overestimate what students
are learning. This is especially true when teaching students about the use of technical machinery and electronics.
Practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Students need feedback to make adjustments
and to learn from their mistakes.
If only they’d had a chance to use the multimeter, or run the PCR machine, or
troubleshoot the fuel injector a few more times. They knew what they were supposed
to do; they just didn’t have enough practice doing it. Right?
Well, maybe. But simply giving students more time with those devices might not
have helped much. Without expert guidance, they would most likely have blown
the fuse, or contaminated the DNA, or mistuned the fuel injector. Without some
kind of mental model of how those devices work, simply tinkering aimlessly with
them is an inefficient way to learn.
Technology Can Help
Enter the age of computer simulation. With it, educators can create models: graphic
representations of systems or devices linked to an interactive model that implements
Instructors can program computers to generate a series of challenges that
require students to use the simulation for a particular purpose—measuring a voltage, sequencing a gene, or tuning an engine, for instance. Knowing what challenge
the students faced, the computer can analyze their actions and provide practical
feedback, point out errors, offer suggestions, and even present a brief tutorial on
difficult topics. It can also score their performance and encourage them to repeat a
challenge (with randomly generated variations), seeking both improved scores and
Of course, no matter how well students score on these artificial tests, they also
need to practice on real equipment. No one wants to hire a biotechnician, for
instance, who has never worked with a PCR cycler. The simulation, no matter
how realistic, is intended to supplement the real world, not supplant it. The extra
practice and deeper understanding provided to students who use online formative
assessments give them an advantage in the classroom and in the job market.
Light a SPARK
This understanding led to the creation
of the Simulations for Performance
Assessments that Report on Knowledge
and Skills (SPARKS) Project. With
support from the National Science
Foundation’s Advanced Technological
Education program, SPARKS creates
formative assessments for electronics
Using simulations of circuits and
test equipment, SPARKS assessments
give students an opportunity to
practice their skills and improve their