The constructivist approach
The educational model for this initiative falls within what is known as a constructivist approach. There is not just one constructivist theory, but there is a group of researchers in education who share some fundaments about how a student learns (Duschl and Hamilton 1992, Ashman and Conway 1997). The main references in this field are based on the works of Jean Piaget (Piaget 1972, 1974) and Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky 1931/1997a, 1931/1997b, Rodriguez-Arocho, 1996), which have been extensively employed in the USA (Bransford et al. 1999).
The basic assumptions of constructivist theory, which are accepted in this work, may be written as follows:
(1) Knowledge is a construction of the person. Thus, it is not conceived as something that a teacher can transfer directly to a student because the teacher has knowledge and can give it to the students. In the constructivist approach there should be an involvement and participation of the student.
(2) This construction is an active process. The student will make meaningful learning by means of activities. The present project is centered on activities carried out by the student in the simulated environment.
(3) This activity of the student takes place in a context of cooperation with others. A social exchange is essential for the success of this construction. This cooperation is here done in a computer environment through the forum and chat rooms, in which the students share their problems and let the most advanced ones help the less advanced so that the latter do not get lost in the process (this is the process of “scaffolding” used by Vygostsky).
(4) The learning activity is done within a historical and cultural context. Learning changes as a consequence of the existence of cultural artifacts available during the process. The cultural artifacts in this project are the computer simulations, which are part of present day technology of education.
The first three premises are shared by both Piaget and Vygotsky, but the fourth is the new aspect considered in the works of Vygotsky.