Photonic Simulator Stimulates Learning

A virtual learning system shows high school students how to build—and communicate through—their own optical networks.


imageNinth-grade students test the photonic simulator at the Macquarie Siemens Science Experience.

It all started in 2006, when we heard that the computing department at Macquarie University was seeking Masters project ideas. We proposed a project to engage students in learning about optical communications. It was to be jointly supervised by computing and physics academics.

CUDOS, an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence, is funded to conduct research on photonics and to communicate it to the community. Our experience is that school students—and even many teachers—are largely unaware of the role that photonics plays in the Internet and communications. For example, they are surprised to learn that international data and phone calls are transmitted via light pulses through optical fibers.

So, we decided to develop a simulation program that allowed students to build a simple communications network and send coded messages through it. The simulator is targeted at junior secondary students (grades 9 and 10) and designed to correspond to the school syllabus. We selected Flash as the delivery platform for the simulator because it can be hosted online; it supports both Mac and PC computers; and it is widely available through a free download. In addition, Flash offers good graphical rendering in 2D without much computational load.

During the project, we met with Carol Oliver, a science journalist completing her Ph.D. in scientific literacy. She urged us to create digital resources to support the students’ individual processes of scientific inquiry. Thus, we decided to make the simulator open-ended. In other words, students were encouraged to create and explore their own network configurations but were not required to reach specific goals along the way. We added a dictionary as a reference within the simulator.

Testing, testing…

We tested the simulator with science classes in three Sydney schools. The students were given a short presentation about optics, in which they were shown examples of optical fiber and a real submarine optical cable. Then they had free time in which they could explore the interactive portion of the simulator. Based on a before-and-after survey, we found that the students showed good improvement in their knowledge of photonics. They also reported that they were interested in the topic and enjoyed doing a computer game instead of their regular science class. (They were less keen to do educational computer games at home.)

Tips for success

• Based on our experience, we have the following advice for other educators looking to develop effective tools to engage secondary students.

• Consider providing your tool free and online, so it can be widely available to students anywhere.

• Offer graded challenges that lead to an open-ended option, in which users can direct their own learning.

• Keep your interface simple and offer a guide on how to get started, so students can navigate it successfully by themselves.

• Make sure that you provide sufficient detail about the subject within the application—by adding a glossary, helpful Web links, instructional videos, or other tools.

• Solicit feedback, test thoroughly and market your work as broadly as possible to ensure that your tool will be both far-reaching and effective.

When we presented our results to science educators at the UniServe Science Conference in Sydney last year, we received helpful feedback. One listener noted that, since most computer games include specific goals, we should incorporate targeted endpoints into the simulator. Other students suggested that we include more interesting graphics and make the program more challenging. Based on these comments, we upgraded the simulator.

The current version of the simulator includes both specific challenges and a “free play” option. Also, thanks to a modest grant from the SPIE Education and Outreach Fund, we were able to recruit a recent CUDOS graduate to develop a new interface for the simulator. He kept the core software engine, but gave the simulator a more contemporary look. We created 15 graded challenges to introduce users to the mechanics of the simulator in an incremental way. The challenges focus on individual concepts such as signal attenuation, so that users are not overwhelmed with too much information at once.

For example, in a typical challenge, a user might use a buffer, switch and coupler to send a message from a source to the correct receiver. The simulator leaves the choices for specific network design and components up to the user, who must also manage the power level of the pulses and prevent collisions between packets. Although the challenge may require the integration of many concepts, users should be well equipped to find a solution, since they will have been introduced to each component in previous challenges.

At the Macquarie University Siemens Science Experience—a three-day exploration of university science aimed at 9th graders—our trials of the simulator were very successful. (One student even snuck back to class to finish the challenges!) We are planning further trials in schools.

Try the Photonic Simulator

We recommend watching the video (“Getting Started”) to familiarize yourself with the program. Please send your feedback to Your comments will assist the authors in developing future versions of the program.

Judith Dawes, Sam Campbell, Kali Madden, Nemanja Jovanovic, Benjamin F. Johnston and Robert Williams are with the department of physics and engineering, and CUDOS, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Adam Strickland was with the computing department at Macquarie.

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Photonic Simulator Stimulates Learning

A virtual learning system shows high school students how to build—and communicate through—their own optical networks.

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