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Free STEM Software from the Concord Consortium
Author: Andrew Zucker, Concord Consortium | May 16th, 2012


When Chad Dorsey, the Concord Consortium’s CEO, wrote a $2.5 million grant proposal to Google.org last year, he realized that a perfect use of the funds would be to convert our organization’s free, open source Molecular Workbench (MW) simulations (mw.concord.org) to run directly in a modern Web browser, making the simulations even more accessible to millions of educators and learners around the world. There will be nothing to download, no plugins required—just click on a URL to investigate how atoms and molecules interact.

Using MW, students can conduct experiments with osmosis, diffusion, protein folding, heat transfer, gas laws, DNA replication, and dozens of other phenomena. There are activities appropriate for learners from elementary school through graduate school. Millions of dollars of development work are available to teachers and students at no charge.

Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman has said, “A concise summary of the last 100 years of science is that atoms and molecules are 85% of physics, 100% of chemistry, and 90% of modern molecular biology.” Similarly, the new science education framework from the National Research Council emphasizes the importance of teaching students unifying ideas, not unrelated facts. For more than a decade, that philosophy has guided the development of MW, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Each NSF project has provided more options for teachers and students. For example, MW now includes simulations at the level of electrons, such as investigating how electron microscopes work—new activities which, like all the others, accurately model physical laws.

The Concord Consortium releases its software for free. The software is also open source, meaning that we share the computer code for others to use. At a time when budgets have been slashed for many schools, free is a more appealing price than ever.

Besides Molecular Workbench, we are developing SmartGraphs software, which runs directly in a Web browser and helps students understand graphs and the concepts represented in graphs, such as position-time and velocity-time graphs taught in typical physical science courses. SmartGraphs allows students to interact with graphs, such as by clicking a point in the graph that meets a certain criterion. Visual and text hints help students who cannot answer questions correctly (see http://www.concord.org/projects/smartgraphs#curriculum). An authoring system is being developed so that non-programmers can create and share new activities.

Other Concord Consortium software includes ITSI-SU and RITES, both of which incorporate computer-based models to help students learn important science content. Each has a portal where teachers can register students, make assignments, and see progress reports. As we continue our work, including using funds from Google.org to improve MW, my colleagues and I hope that more schools will take advantage of our software.

Andy Zucker, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist at the Concord Consortium. A former teacher and director of a school computer center, Andy and colleagues developed award-winning videos for mathematics education, and he has also published widely about STEM education issues.

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