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Analysis of Student Interactions with Browser-Based Interactive Simulations

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session


Tagged Division

Computers in Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.214.1 - 26.214.10



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Paper Authors


Kyle Joe Branch University of Utah

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Kyle Branch is a second-year graduate student at the University of Utah Department of Chemical Engineering. He has helped develop and teach a freshman laboratory course using the methods described in this paper. His main research interest is in engineering education, focusing on the creation and analysis of interactive simulations for undergraduate chemical engineering courses.

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Anthony Edward Butterfield University of Utah

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Anthony Butterfield is an Assistant Professor (Lecturing) in the Chemical Engineering Department of the University of Utah. He received his B. S. and Ph. D. from the University of Utah and a M. S. from the University of California, San Diego. His teaching responsibilities include the senior unit operations laboratory and freshman design laboratory. His research interests focus on undergraduate education, targeted drug delivery, photobioreactor design, and instrumentation.

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Analysis of Student Interactions with Browser-Based Interactive SimulationsWe have developed open-sourced interactive browser-based simulations that model realistic coreengineering systems. Our simulations use JavaScript and HTML-5 to insure that the code isplatform-agnostic and functional on all devices with a modern browser, avoiding some of thedissemination hurdles with educational Java applets or mobile apps. For each use of thesimulations, we track student mouse movements and clicks, keyboard events, event times,screencast use, correlation with hands-on design project success, and more, leading to a largedatabase that may be mined for pedagogical insights.We have had remarkable success using these simulations while coupling them to collaborative,open-ended, hands-on design projects within the setting of a freshman design laboratory. In thiscourse, students individually conduct experiments with the simulations before they come togetheras teams to design and build a process or product that relies on related core engineering theory.Pre- and post-course surveys and tests were used to assess the teaching potential and students’evaluation of the simulations as course materials. Resulting student evaluations are far morepositive than those found in a comparable engineering course using traditional pedagogy and statictext-book assignments. Student learning was demonstrably improved along with studentconfidence in a variety of engineering skills. Our findings suggest that the simulations facilitatehands-on active and collaborative learning earlier in our students’ academic career by makingcomplicated engineering theory more accessible.The resulting database of simulation usage data has been effective in detecting and responding tousage patterns of successful and unsuccessful students, allowing for iterative development ofeducational material. For example, ensemble averages of mouse location for successful andunsuccessful attempts in a spectrophotometer simulation revealed that unsuccessful students didnot understand the need to properly calibrate. Student study habits, and problem solving strategiesalso are evident in such data. Finally, we have found usage tracking data to be effective inimproving user experience; for example, we detected attempts to interact with non-interactiveelements of the simulation, prompting us to add interactive functionality to these elements.By collecting real-time data on how student complete their homework, including both correct andincorrect attempts, we are able to both refocus our in-class discussions to address quantifiedweaknesses and add automated instructional supports in simulations to address errors at themoment they are detected. We believe, using such data, we will be able to bring some of thebenefits of in-person active and collaborative learning to online simulations.

Branch, K. J., & Butterfield, A. E. (2015, June), Analysis of Student Interactions with Browser-Based Interactive Simulations Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23553

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