Even the brightest science students sometimes have trouble learning new or complicated ideas if they can't see firsthand what an instructor is trying to explain. Further complicating the problem is the fact that real-life examples of many scientific processes aren't easy to re-create in, say, a dorm room or lecture hall.
That problem has been solved in many cases by the University of Colorado at Boulder's Interactive Simulations Project, also known as the Physics Education Technology Project, or PhET, a series of science simulations created to allow students to see complex reactions and models from a simple, easy to navigate Web site. The project, started in 2002 to help physics students, has expanded to include more than 80 different simulations in physics, chemistry, math, biology and earth science. The project has been so successful that it recently was awarded $1.1 million by the Hewlett Foundation to continue development of the free, research-based, interactive simulations.
"PhET helps students visualize science and interact with it on their own," said Wendy Adams, co-director of the PhET Project with Kathy Perkins. "As the students change things within the simulations the system reacts immediately."
The PhET Project got its startup capital from CU-Boulder Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman who used his Nobel winnings to fund the first simulations for a class called "The Physics of Everyday Life." The in-class demonstrations were inspired by the reaction he got while using simulations to explain his award-winning physics research.
"He found that when he talked to people about his lectures, the simulations were what they remembered," said Adams. "He realized that simulations were going to be very important to teaching."
Wieman was right. MIT graduate student and CU-Boulder graduate Elliot Hedman said using PhET simulations in CU-Boulder physics Professor Noah Finkelstein's Modern Physics class is one of the most memorable experiences of his undergraduate career.
"It's been two years now since I took that class and I still remember those simulations," said Hedman. "I'm a visual learner and PhET suited me well."
Caryn Burnett, a senior physics major at CU-Boulder, said the PhET simulations have been invaluable to her studies as well.
"It's hard to visualize physics in action," said Burnett. "With PhET simulations we can really see electrons moving around and it's helpful."
Six years after its creation, nearly every introductory physics course uses the PhET simulations Web site and the project is gaining popularity across campus and beyond. More than 5 million simulations were run from the Web site in 2008 with another million simulations downloaded for offline use. The simulations have been translated into 33 languages already and more, including Arabic, are planned.
"We figure that in five years teachers are going to just expect to have simulations at their disposal to teach science," said Adams.
Indeed, the simulations available to college students and professors on CU-Boulder's Web site are also used by elementary, middle and high school teachers.
"I don't know of any other materials that work all the way from grade school through grad school," said Adams.
Patricia Loeblein, who teaches physics and chemistry at Evergreen High School in Jefferson County, said the PhET Project simulations are easy enough for her students to understand but also allow them to grasp complex concepts they will encounter in college. The simulations, she added, greatly increase the number of students that comprehend science.
"The students who were most successful before made their own connections to real-world models," said Loeblein. "For others, it used to be hard to visualize some of the things we were talking about. The fact that they can interact with the PhET simulations with little guidance is great. I see the students really using the visualizations in their answers to questions."
The fact that the Web site is free and easily accessible is also a benefit to teachers like Loeblein who have limited resources for even basic classroom materials.
The PhET Project received two other grants this past fall: a $498,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for three years with $150,000 in matching money from the University of Colorado and another $500,000 grant for two years from the King Saud University in Saudi Arabia. The Hewlett Foundation grant is meant to provide general program support for the project for three years.
To visit the PhET Project go to phet.colorado.edu.