Using computers to create mathematical models that simulate the way the world works has gradually been transforming science. Now, thanks to a brand-new online textbook on computational science, your science teachers can get in on the revolution.

The online textbook is a product of a pilot project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Called Adventures in Supercomputing (AiS), the program’s mission is to introduce computational science–loosely defined as the use of computers to study science–into the K-12 curriculum.

Project-based curriculum

Over the past seven years, more than 100 schools in nine states have participated in AiS. At the program’s core is a project-based curriculum in which teams of students come up with a science question, develop a mathematical model to address the question, then construct a computer model to solve the problem.

Dick Allen, a mathematician at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, is the program’s New Mexico director. Allen has spent the past two years developing an online textbook to define the program’s curriculum.

“The joy of [the textbook] is that it’s available for free to anyone with internet access,” said Allen, who created the textbook in conjunction with two high school teachers.

The online text takes students–and teachers who wish to start a computational science course in their own school–through the entire curriculum. Topics of study include defining a science problem, developing a mathematical model to study the problem, using the world wide web for research, programming a computer using FORTRAN and C++, solving problems via computer, and creating HTML documents to show results

“It’s meant to be a complete package,” said Paula Avery, one of the two teachers who helped Allen develop the text. “We use it instead of a printed textbook, because it more closely models what we’re doing with technology.”

The online text provides more features than a printed textbook because it is interactive and links to other resources, Avery said. Plus, updates to the online text are instantaneous.

Golf balls and aquifers

New Mexico high school students have used the textbook to develop computer models for analyzing the effect of wind speeds on a golf ball’s flight and determining the effects of pumping water out of a local aquifer. The students have posted graphs of their models on the internet as part of their projects.

The online text includes a teacher’s manual that suggests ways to use the textbook and provides lesson plans for teaching the curriculum.

Computational science encompasses many disciplines, Allen said. Traditional uses include fluid dynamics, seismology, and nuclear engineering. New uses include biology, economics, music, and the visual arts.

“Simulation is playing an increasingly important role in the things we do,” Allen said. And it stands to reason that programming computers to perform these simulations will become an increasingly important skill.

So far, 100 schools from nine states are participating in AiS. Each spring, students have an opportunity to display their computational science projects at an exposition held in each state. In June, the teams from each state representing the top projects attend a national AiS Expo in Washington, D.C.

Computational Science Textbook
http://ais.cs.sandia.gov/AiS/textbook/textbook.html

Adventures in Supercomputing
http://www.krellinst.org/AiS/national

Sandia National Laboratories
http://www.sandia.gov