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This article is in a large part a synthesis of Rieber 1996


ThinkerTools is a type of microworld.

  • ThinkerTools is both a computer-based modeling tool for physics and a pedagogy for science education based on scientific inquiry: “. . . an approach to science education that enables sixth graders to learn principles underlying Newtonian mechanics, and to apply them in unfamiliar problem solving contexts. The students’ learning is centered around problem solving and experimentation within a set of computer microworlds (i.e., interactive simulations).” (White & Horowitz, 1987, abstract).
  • one of the earliest examples of how to include interactions and model building within “interactive simulations.”

In ThinkerTools:

  • students explore interactive models of Newtonian mechanics.
  • They can build their own models,
  • or they can interact with a variety of ready-made models that accompany the software.
  • A variety of symbolic visual representations is used.
  • Simple objects, in the shape of balls (called “dots”), can be added to the model, each with parameters directly under the student’s control. For example, each dot’s initial mass, elasticity (bouncy or fragile), or velocity can be manipulated.
  • Variables of the model’s environment itself can be modified, such as the presence and strength of gravity and air friction.
  • Other elements can be added to the model, such as barriers and targets.
  • Forces affecting the motion of the balls can be directly controlled, if desired, by the keyboard or a joy stick, such as by giving the ball kicks in the four directions (i.e., up, down, left, right). This adds a video- game-like feature to the model.

ThinkerTools also includes a variety of measurement tools with which students can accurately observe distance, time, and velocity. Another symbol, called a datacross, can be used to show graphically the motion variables of the object. A datacross shows the current horizontal and vertical motion of the ball in terms of the sum of all of the forces that have acted on the ball. The motion of the object over time can also be depicted by having the object leave a trail of small, stationary dots. When the object moves slowly, the trail of dots is closely spaced, but when the object moves faster, the space between the trailing dots increases. Students can also use a “step through time” feature, in which the simulation can be frozen in time, allowing students to proceed step by step through time. This gives them a powerful means of analyzing the object’s motion and also of predicting the object’s future motion. The point of all of these tools is to give students the means of determining and understanding the laws of motion in an interactive, exploratory way: “In this way, such dynamic interactive simulations can provide a transition from students’ intuitive ways of reasoning about the world to the more abstract, formal methods that scientists use for representing and reasoning about the behavior of a system” (White & Frederiksen, 2000, pp. 326–327).

ThinkerTools acts as a bridge between concrete, qualitative reasoning of realworld examples and the highly abstract world of scientific formalism where laws are expressed mathematically in the form of equations.

ThinkerTools is best used with an instructional approach to inquiry and modeling called the ThinkerTools Inquiry Curriculum. The goal of this curriculum is to develop students’ metacognitive knowledge, that is, “their knowledge about the nature of scientific laws and models, their knowledge about the processes of modeling and inquiry, and their ability to monitor and reflect on these processes so they can improve them” (White & Frederiksen, 2000, p. 327). White and her colleagues predicted that such a pedagogical approach used in the context of powerful tools such as the ThinkerTools software should make learning science possible for all students. The curriculum largely follows the scientific method, involving the following steps:

  1. question—students start by constructing a research question, perhaps the hardest part of the model;
  2. hypothesize—students generate hypotheses related to their question;
  3. investigate—students carry out experiments, both with the ThinkerTools software and in the real world, the goal of which is to gather empirical evidence about which hypotheses (if any) are accurate;
  4. analyze—after the experiments are run, students analyze the resulting data;
  5. model—based on their analysis, students articulate a causal model, in the form of a scientific law, to explain the findings; and
  6. evaluate—the final step is to test whether their laws and causal modelsworkwell in real-world situations, which, in turn, often leads to new research questions.

Back to Microworld


  • Rieber, L. P. (1996) Microworlds, in Jonassen, David, H. (ed.) Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology. Second edition. Simon and Schuster, 583-603 ISBN 0-02-864663-0
  • Rieber, L. P. (2005). Multimedia Learning in Games, Simulations, and Microworlds by Lloyd P. Rieber in The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning edited by Richard E. Mayer. Cambridge University Press HTML/PDF
  • White, B. Y., & Frederiksen, J. R. (2000). Technological tools and instructional approaches for making scientific inquiry accessible to all. In M. J. Jacobson & R. B. Kozma (Eds.), Innovations in science and mathematics education: Advanced designs for technologies of learning (pp. 321–359). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • White, B. Y., & Horowitz, P. (1987). ThinkerTools: Enabling children to understand physical laws. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek, and Newman.