Published: Feb. 27, 2018 By

Doctoral candidate translates PhET Interactive Simulations into Spanish, making them more accessible to a global audience

Physics is challenging, but learning it in a second language adds an entirely different obstacle, says Diana López, who is doing what she can to make STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—more accessible to students who speak Spanish.

López, a doctoral candidate studying advanced technology at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (National Polytechnic Institute) in Mexico and currently an exchange student at the University of Colorado Boulder, is spearheading an effort to translate CU’s PhET Interactive Simulations and associated resources from English into Spanish.


Diana López. Photo courtesy of Diana López.

The implications of translating PhET into Spanish extend beyond benefitting her home country.

“There are many English as Second Language students in the U.S. who can benefit from the translations as well, alongside other countries where Spanish is a primary language,” states López. “Teachers appreciate it (if the resources) are in their native language.”

For López, although it’s time-consuming work, translating PhET is personal.

“Translating PhET is a passion project; it’s not for my PhD,” says López.

As a high school science teacher in Mexico, López experienced first-hand the benefits of PhET. López used the offline version, since “there wasn’t any internet connection in my classroom.”

“I taught physics and math to high school juniors and seniors in Mexico before pursuing my PhD, and I used the PhET Interactive Simulations in my classroom to help students visualize the activities they were studying,” states López.

“PhET provides visuals for the students so they can see and comprehend what they’re working on, plus they’re able to explore and make their own questions,” says López. Further, “They can change something and immediately see what happens. That’s not always possible in a lab.”

Altogether, “PhET gives students ownership over their learning,” continues López. “It’s a tool that they can use to construct their own understanding,” she says.

In Mexico, López would love to see technology utilized more in classrooms, but “it’s currently a dream in most schools.” She adds that “most of the schools don’t have the resources and teachers don’t know how to integrate it into their students’ learning process.”

López’s PhD project is developing a dashboard for PhET simulations, which aims to help show teachers if their students are engaged. Currently, the simulations themselves do not easily show teachers which tools are being used or ignored. The dashboard aims to make that information more accessible.

For López, “good questions aren’t a cookbook.” PhET “shows teachers what tools students use and don’t use.” This is helpful, because every student uses the simulations differently.

“If a teacher sees that a student didn’t use a specific tool, but they know that it’s useful, the teacher can then show them how to use that specific tool to enhance the lesson.”

So far, about 20 percent of the teacher tips and 10 percent of the activities have been translated into Spanish. López notes that Spanish is PhET’s second most-used language.

PhET, which initially stood for Physics, Education and Technology, now broadly covers most STEM-related subjects.

Especially when dealing with STEM subjects, comprehending minuscule details can be a challenge. “PhET makes the invisible visible,” states López.