Published: Oct. 10, 2016 By


Students who developed the first PhET simulation app for iPad include, (back row, from left to right) Andrew Arnopoulos, Luis Olivas, Eric Rudat, (front row from left to right) Ellie Daw and Sheefali Tewari. Photo by Ellie Daw.

Thanks to a team of undergraduate students, the University of Colorado Boulder now has an innovative new iPad app for kids, extending the international educational footprint of the PhET Interactive Simulations project and its award-winning collection of science and math simulations.


“The undergraduate team did an incredible job,” said Ariel Paul, PhET’s director of development. “Their dedication and professionalism allowed us to give them creative control over the project. They ran with it and completely excelled.”

As part of the computer science Capstone Senior Project, five students — Andrew Arnopoulos, Ellie Daw, Luis Olivas, Eric Rudat, Sheefali Tewari — spent two semesters working on the PhET app, the first in design and the second in coding. Capstone seeks to integrate computer-science majors into commercial projects and provide them real-world experience.

In this case, they applied their design and coding skills to advance the reach and sustainability of the PhET project. Although the PhET simulations have massive use in schools — downloaded more than 100 million times per year worldwide, with some of the popular simulations translated into over 70 different languages — the app opens exciting new opportunities for adoption and use.


Koji Dennis (left) and Niko Dennis are engrossed in a PhET simulation for iPad. Photo by Kathy Perkins.

“We want to connect more directly with parents seeking educational tools, and provide kids with an easy way to access PhET simulations at home, on a road trip or anywhere” said PhET Director Kathy Perkins, who is also an associate professor of physics and the mother of twin 8-year-old boys. “As a parent, I often turn to the App Store to look for educational content for my kids. If it’s 99 cents, I really don’t think twice about buying it, if I think it’s helpful."

While the PhET simulations can be accessed for free at their website, the 99 cents App will help fund its simulation-development efforts. The mobile environment of the last five years has created some new challenges for the PhET project, initially founded by CU Nobel Laureate and current PhET Senior Advisor Carl Wieman. Increasingly, schools are turning to iPads or Chromebooks, rather than desktop computers, and Paul said 10 percent of the PhET downloads are in mobile iOS — 7 percent of those coming from iPads.

However, the original simulation software was written in Flash or Java and will not run on the new mobile iOS platforms, creating a growing barrier classroom use. The solution is a complete redesign and redevelop into HTML5. About 40 of the 134 simulations have been redone, but each requires significant funding.

About PhET

PhET Interactive Simulations, a project of the University of Colorado Boulder, was founded by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman in 2002. The project is known for its collection of over 130 innovative interactive simulations for STEM education, which are freely available as open educational resources from These powerful educational tools are based on extensive education research, and are used worldwide over 100 million times per year in K-12 and college settings.

The 99-cent-per-download sales proceeds from the app will go directly into accelerating this upgrade process, making the sims available on more devices. “We really want it to be a one-step experience for students and teachers on iPads — you push a button and the sims run,” Perkins said.

The project is also breaking new ground as the University’s first paid app and required contributions from numerous campus stakeholders. Perkins said everyone involved — including the Technology Transfer Office, the Office of the Chancellor and the Office of Information Technology — were very collaborative in working through the legalese and financial processing.

Normally, after Apple’s cut, the TTO would receive 25 percent of such revenues, and the chancellor’s office another 25 percent, but for a three-year period Chancellor Philip DiStefano has waived all fees and the TTO has cut its share to 15 percent in support of the PhET project.

“This university is an amazing place,” Perkins said. “Everyone came together and worked hard to make the PhET app a reality.”

Today PhET gets most of its funding, about $2 million annually, from grants and donations. Creating a sustainable revenue stream, while still making its high-quality resources freely available on the internet, is a strategic priority for the project.

“We are excited to be taking this step towards sustainability. If everyone spreads the word, we could raise $100,000 or more this year,” said Perkins.

The PhET App is now available at Apple’s App Store. From mastering multiplication, to understanding atoms or exploring energy, the app offers something for everyone. Tap into that curiosity and start learning today.