Published: Nov. 27, 2012

What would you learn if you could turn off the atmosphere? What problems might you solve if you could increase the force of gravity or had the ability to manipulate individual electrons in a circuit? Demonstrations and experiments have long been an important tool in science education, yet real-world limitations often make it impossible for students to see invisible interactions or understand the influence of massive forces. But by using PhET, an interactive simulation platform developed at CU Boulder, students can alter powerful forces and see the unseen.

Fluid Pressure and Flow simulation in PhETIn 2002, Nobel Laureate Dr. Carl Wieman founded PhET as a way to help students learn through independent exploration. Funded in part by Dr. Wieman’s Nobel award, a team of scientists and designers from CU Boulder have created a wide range of interactive computer simulations that students and teachers can download for free.  The acronym “PhET” initially stood for “Physics Education Technology,” but the project has expanded to offer simulations on a range of science topics including biology, chemistry, and mathematics. As of August 2012, over 100 simulations have been created, tested, and released to the public.

The software is organized by grade level:

Although the concepts vary, the visual and interactive experience remains consistent throughout grade levels. Almost all elements in a simulation are simple, colorful, and movable. The “Fluid Pressure and Flow” demonstration allows students to modify fluid density, gravitational pull, atmospheric pressure, and the shape of a pipe through which water is flowing, to see how it changes speed.  Students can often switch between different screen views and information boxes can be turned on and off.  Some simulations, like the ever-popular “Electric Field Hockey” contain game-like elements.

Because these games have the potential to be distracting, PhET researchers conduct extensive testing on new projects. Each simulation is analyzed carefully to make certain that students are learning the intended concepts and can easily interact with the software. Researchers observe which features are helpful and which are distracting, eliminating superfluous elements and adding new details that aid learning.

After the research is complete and simulations are released to the public, this material is used by teachers in a variety of ways. Although many students interact with PhET material independently, teachers also integrate the software into their lectures. When using PhET demonstrations in the science classroom, it has been observed that “students often ask many more, and deeper questions.”[i] According to the PhET lecture guide, “Once students realize the ease with which the simulation’s controls can be changed by the instructor, it is common for student ideas to direct investigation of a sim through a series of ‘what-if’ questions.”[ii]  It seems that students pay more attention when they have the opportunity to interact with the material directly. This is very difficult to accomplish in an auditorium lecture, but PhET allows for these interactions to happen even in large classes.

PhET software is now being used by teachers and students around the world. The newest tested simulations include explorations of molecule polarity and bending light. Because of its popularity abroad, PhET has added a function that allows the simulations to be easily translated into dozens of different languages. As more students and teachers gain access to this material, Dr. Weiman’s dream of encouraging scientific exploration at all levels of education is coming true. “It’s the best science education software that money can buy,” says Dr. Mike Dubson, science expert and software engineer at PhET, “except you can’t buy it because it’s free.”