PhET: Simulations for the Science Classroom

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This page was originally authored by Matt Trask (2011)



“Learning theory does not provide a simple recipe for designing effective learning environments; similarly, physics constrains but does not dictate how to build a bridge” (Bransford et al, 2004)



PhET

Introduction

The PhET project is a collection of free, online educational simulations. The project was founded by Carl Wieman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The aim of the project is provide realistic interactive science simulations appropriate for high school classes. The developers’ goal is that these simulations will help students to develop a deeper understanding of science concepts which may be difficult to appreciate otherwise. Creating relevant simulations requires thorough research before, during and after their creation.

Simulations

The PhET project consists of a collection of over one hundred online educational learning objects developed by PhET research team at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As an ongoing project, the team is actively creating new simulations and improving old ones. The simulations are designed with a target audience of high school students, however many of the simulations prove useful to students of all ages. The only requirement is an internet connection and a moderate level of digital literacy. Moreover, since many of the simulations span several larger concepts they can be useful in one way or another to students K-12 and beyond. The simulations fall into 5 main categories: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Earth Science and Math. Some of the topics covered are as follows.

Physics

Projectile
  • motion
  • sound & waves
  • work
  • energy & power
  • heat & thermodynamics
  • quantum phenomena
  • light & radiation
  • electricity, circuits & magnets


Chemistry

Atom
  • general chemistry
  • quantum chemistry
  • acids and bases






Biology

Natural Selection
  • vision
  • pH
  • density
  • natural selection






Earth Science

Planet
  • the Earth
  • waves
  • glaciers
  • greenhouse effect






Math

Projectile
  • tools
  • applications
  • graphing






PhET Design

Key Components

Finkelstein et al. (2006) argue that there are 6 key components required for an effective educational tool. It must:

  • support an interactive approach
  • employ dynamic feedback
  • follow a constructivist approach
  • provide a creative workplace
  • make explicit otherwise inaccessible models or phenomena
  • constrain students productively


PhET Principles

Each of the PhET simulations is the result of comprehensive research, resulting in a collection of works that follow the same principles of design consistent with current theories of online learning. These principles that lead to effective simulations are summarized by Adams et al. (2008) as follows:

  • Animation and Interactivity: student attention is drawn to animations, therefore students should be given as much control over the significant parameters as possible while being careful over which parameters are limited
  • Exploration: when students meet aspects of the simulation that they do not comprehend, they will explore them until they arrive at a working definition of the particular feature. They will then use legends and labels to connect their own definition to the science vocabulary. Simulations with multiple representations of the same item enable students to create further connections.
  • Fun: if simulations are fun students are more likely to play with them. Simulations that appear dull or daunting prevent students from freely interacting with them.
  • Performance mode: students who feel that they do not understand the material are more likely to freely investigate a simulation than those who believe that they already understand the subject matter.
  • Engagement: engaged students work actively to understand the material. Students are more likely to be engaged by simulations about unknown scientific phenomena.
  • Credibility: in order to achieve engaged exploration, the students must find the simulation believable and realistic.
  • Coherence Principle: the inclusion of ancillary information, though interesting, can ultimately detract from overall student learning
  • Consistency: the ability to analyze and utilize the simulations is greatly affected by the students’ familiarity with similar computer programs.


Coherent Formatting

Based on these findings, the PhET research team strives to employ a coherent format which includes each of the following in their simulations (Adams et al., 2008)

  • Intuitive Controls: a consistent, intuitive set of controls are used across each of the PhET simulations.
  • Interface: since students will naturally try to move anything that looks useful, click and drag controls are the basis for many simulations. Students are also comfortable using radio buttons and sliders.
  • Real World Connections: common everyday objects tend to promote exploration. Giving objects cartoonish features is a good way to draw attention to certain features, without getting bogged down in details. Where appropriate the simulations should have limits, beyond which it should break.
  • Visual Cues: All visual cues matter. Before they know anything about a concept, students will give all prompts equal weight. Therefore, educationally significant details are accentuated while other distractions are limited.


Benefits

Recent pedagogical research has found that many the K-12 school science topics are difficult for students to grasp, and this is largely due to the inadequacies of educational material (Kiboss, Ndirangu, Wekesa, 2004). Further work in psychology is leading to a greater awareness of the role that settings and previously constructed knowledge have on learning. Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2004) assert that computer related technologies such as simulations, will enable the development of more powerful tools for learning.

There is already considerable evidence that educational science simulations can help students reach deeper levels of understanding. Richards, Barowy and Levin (1992) showed that computer models allow students to link theory to real life especially when coupled with hands on activities. Similarly, Stieff and Wilensky (2003) found that simulations give students the chance to explore scientific phenomena that could be otherwise difficult or impossible to visualize, ultimately leading to a richer appreciation of the subject matter. This deeper understanding was noted in both the classroom and science laboratory.

Research by the PhET team (Finkelstein et al., 2006) supports the notion that simulations can lead to deeper understanding of science concepts. Overall they found that the benefits include:

  • students are as or more productive
  • increased engagement
  • greater understanding of concepts
  • students enjoy the simulations
  • allows for multiple levels of competencies (students can learn at their own pace)


Research

The PhET research team found that since highly interactive and in depth computer simulations are a relatively new tool, there is limited research available on their use (Adams et al., 2008). In order to develop effective simulations they have done a great deal of research.

The predominant method is research is by qualitative analysis (Adams et al., 2008). PhET has conducted over 200 individual student interviews, where students “think out loud” as they interact with the simulations. These interviews are an invaluable source of information as to how students at first explore and then begin to construct knowledge. While each simulation is different, certain general guiding principles can be gleaned from this research.

More recent research has sought to refine their understanding; focusing on the particular details of the simulations which enable students to construct their own conceptual understanding. They are especially interested in the significance of visualizing the normally invisible, the use of comparison and on the appropriate amounts of instructional assistance with the simulations.


Constructivism and PhET

Richards et al. (1992) argue that from a constructivist viewpoint, learning should be an active creation of understanding, as opposed to the transmission of content. Furthermore they assert that computer related technologies can potentially allow students to explore materials in their own way, leading to deeper understanding of the subject matter.

The PhET simulations are ideally suited constructivist learning environments. They are based on scientific theory and provide a series of interactive activities that can both challenge students currently held beliefs, while enabling them to further construct knowledge. This tends to reduce the amount of information that students try to memorize information but rather strengthens their ability to reason logically.


Considerations for Implementation

There a number of factors required for the successful application of the PhET simulations. Developers of the simulations noted for example that exploration can be fruitless if too many distracting elements are present or that some features can be so much fun that students get sidetracked (Adams et al., 2008). While the developers have taken pains to limits these distractions, each simulation is simply a tool used by an educator. The overall success of these tools ultimately depends on how they are implemented.

Wieman et al. (2010) stress that even the best simulations do not guarantee success. To achieve their greatest effect requires both careful integration into the course and a suitable amount of direction from the instructor. Adams (2010) supports this notion and asserts that proper use of these simulations requires suitable scaffolding of the material that will allow students to create their own understanding.


Strategies

The PhET developers have set out a set of strategies for effective simulation use (Wieman et al., 2010). They are:

  • define specific learning goals
  • encourage students to use sense-making and reasoning
  • connect with and build on students’ prior knowledge & understanding (including addressing possible misconceptions)
  • connect to and make sense of real-world experiences
  • encourage productive collaborative activities
  • do not overly constrain student exploration
  • require reasoning/sense-making in words and diagrams (i.e. multiple representations)
  • help students monitor their understanding.


Integration

In order to facilitate the integration of the simulations into the classroom, the developers offer some potential uses (Wieman et al., 2010). These include:

  • introduce a new topic
  • build concepts or skills
  • reinforce ideas
  • provide final review and reflection.


Resources

Adams, W.K. (2010) Student engagement and learning with PhET interactive. Il Nuovo Cimento published online July 23, 2010

Adams, W.K., Reid, S., LeMaster, R., McKagan, S.B., Perkins, K.K., Dubson, M. & Wieman, C.E. (2008) A Study of Educational Simulations Part I - Engagement and Learning. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 19(3), 397-419

Adams, W.K., Reid, S., LeMaster, R., McKagan, S.B., Perkins, K.K., Dubson, M. & Wieman, C.E. (2008) A Study of Educational Simulations Part II – Interface Design. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 19(4), 551-577

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2004) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy of Sciences

Finkelstein, N., Adams, W., Keller, C., Perkins, K., & Wieman, C. (2006) High-Tech Tools for Teaching Physics: the Physics Education Technology Project. The Journal of Online Teaching and Learning

Gibson, M.L., Buche, M. W., Waite, J.J. (2008) Technology Support for the Classroom: Technology Alternatives to the Traditional Classroom. Journal of International Technology and Information Management 2008 Volume 17

Kiboss, J.K., Ndirangu, M., & Wekesa, E.W. (2004) Effectiveness of a Computer-Mediated Simulations Program in School Biology on Pupils’ Learning Outcomes in Cell Theory. Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 13, No. 2

Richards, J., Barowy, W., & Levin, D. (1992) Computer Simulations in the Science Classroom. Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol 1, No. 1

Stieff, M. & Wilensky, U. (2003) Connected Chemistry—Incorporating Interactive Simulations into the Chemistry Classroom. Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 12, No. 3

Wieman, C., Adams, W., Loeblein, P., & Perkins, K. Teaching physics using PhET simulations. The Physics Teacher, in press, 2010