Published: Sept. 26, 2017 By

CU Boulder’s PhET Interactive Simulations is one of six winners of the prestigious, international WISE Award from the WISE Foundation.

A STEM education project at the University of Colorado Boulder has earned one of its biggest accomplishments to date: It is one of six winners of the 2017 World Innovation Summit for Education (or, WISE) Award. This prestigious international award recognizes innovative educational projects that address challenges and bring transformative societal change. 

PhET's Kathy Perkins

Kathy Perkins, the director of PhET Interactive Simulations, began researching science education while working with Carl Wieman, one of five Nobel laureates at the University of Colorado. Photo by Cay Leytham-Powell, University of Colorado Boulder.

The CU Boulder project, known as the PhET Interactive Simulations, is a pioneering science and math educational resource that seeks to improve STEM (or science, technology, engineering and mathematics) literacy and accessibility across the globe through free, open-source educational software. Since its inception, it has been used more than 80 million times a year by students and teachers across the educational spectrum.

This award by the WISE Initiative expands the program’s ability to reach new audiences and form new partnerships across the globe, said Kathy Perkins, director of PhET Interactive Simulations.

“To be selected from the many deserving projects is truly a great honor for our team,” Perkins said. “This WISE Award affirms the importance of advancing STEM learning and literacy in today's world and the positive impact high-quality open-educational resources can have at scale. We are proud to see PhET simulations benefiting so many teachers and learners worldwide.”

PhET, which originally stood for “Physics Education Technology,” was started by Carl Wieman — a former CU Boulder physics professor and one of five Nobel Laureates from the university — when he saw the educational force that physics simulations provided to his audiences. 

Using part of his Nobel Prize winnings and a grant from the National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Scholars program, Wieman founded the PhET project at CU Boulder in 2002 to encourage scientific literacy through interactive, research-based learning. 

“My original goal with PhET was just to help people by making learning science — physics — easier and more fun,” said Wieman, who is now an engineering, education and physics professor at Stanford University.

PhET's Carl Wieman

Carl Wieman, now a professor at Stanford, created PhET during his time at CU Boulder with his Nobel Prize earnings. Photo by Stanford University.

While PhET originally focused solely on physics simulations and education, today it addresses a global need to improve science and math education with more than 140 simulations in topics ranging from plate tectonics to calculus to natural selection. 

These simulations are all designed using the same principles: They need to be interactive and flexible, encourage scientific inquiry, create real-world connections for users, and include multiple representations of the problem in question, like using numbers along with graphs or object motion. Altogether, the simulations create an environment for productive exploration. 

Over the years, PhET’s reach has expanded across disciplines and around the globe, and is now translated into 90 languages and used in more than 200 countries and territories.

“It’s fantastic that it’s being used so widely,” said Wieman. “It’s way beyond I ever imagined.”

The WISE initiative is supported by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The other projects that won this year include Boston-based The Speed School, the engineering college 42, Lights to Learn, The Learner Guide Program and Ubongo Edutainment.

“From rural Tanzania and South America to Silicon Valley and Paris, our six WISE Awards winners reflect the wide range of what can be achieved in advancing education — whatever the social or geographical context — when there is a creative solution and a determination to see it through. We look forward to showcasing our winners and runners-up at the WISE Summit in Doha in November, and to supporting their progress as they grow” commented Stavros N. Yiannouka, the CEO of WISE, in a press release by the organization.

In addition to greater coverage of the work that PhET Interactive Simulations does for STEM education, they will also receive $20,000 to further their goals.

“Our team is passionate about supporting all learners in learning science and math,” said Perkins. “We believe the new connections afforded by the WISE Award could easily double our worldwide reach and support for STEM teachers and learners.”

For further information about PhET Interactive Simulations, visit their website. As well, for further information about the WISE awards, visit the WISE Foundation's website.