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Peer Review


by Wolfgang Christian


Overall Rating:

5 stars
Content Quality: 5 stars
Effectiveness: 5 stars
Ease of Use: 5 stars
Reviewed: Jul 25, 2002 by Physics
Overview: Physlets is a collection of small, simple java applets that can be used to simulate or demonstrate a wide range of physical phenomena. Materials covered by these applets includes mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, waves, modern physics, and quantum mechanics. Because they can be scripted, they can be used in many different settings and for many different learning activities.
Learning Goals: Varied, but Physlets are particularly suited for hands-on, interactive conceptual learning.
Target Student Population: All
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills: Depends on the use of the material.
Type of Material: Java applets suitable for tutorials, interactive quizzes and homework, online instruction, pre-labs or virtual lab exercises, demonstrations.
Recommended Uses: Just in Time Teaching exercises, hands-on conceptual exercises.
Technical Requirements: The authors note problems with Macintosh browsers that do not have javascript to java communication. Will run on Windows with Communicator 4.5 and later and IE 5.0 and later

Evaluation and Observation

Content Quality

Rating: 5 stars
Strengths: The comprehensiveness and flexibility of this collection of applets sets it apart from similar tools. Physlets can be used in just about any physics class, as well as math, engineering, and chemistry courses. The material covered includes some of the most fundamental in physics. Although these applets can be used for a wide range of presentation styles, the authors stress their use for fostering conceptual understanding.
Concerns: The computational engines underlying the applets do not, by necessity, include units. Instructors should be careful to include units and dimensions in problems for students.

The graphics are generally very simple, requiring students to abstract real objects to rectangles and circles. Although this is an important modeling skill for students to learn, they often do not appreciate this.

Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool

Rating: 5 stars
Strengths: One of the greatest strengths of Physlets is that they can be used to write questions and problems that are not "plug-and-chug". Problems can be written so that students must interact with a model physical system to extract the relevant information to answer the question. This active engagement has been found to be key for learning to occur. The authors have quite a few example problems that take this approach to learning.
Concerns: None

Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty

Rating: 5 stars
Strengths: These applets include a wide range of user interface elements that allow students to interact with the Physlets demonstrations. For example, objects in the simulation can be dragged, with positions, potentials, or other information displayed.

Example Physlet applications can be copied and modified fairly easily. Instructions for doing this, and writing new scripts to interact with the applets, are available in the book PHYSLETS: Teaching Physics with Interactive Curricular Material by the authors. A companion web site to this book, available at, provides a wide range of example problems.

There are many ready-to-use physlets on the webphysics websites that require little or no preparation.

Concerns: Use of Physlets may require some work by the instructor. Creation or editing of html pages for students will generally be necessary. Writing javascript is necessary for advanced use of Physlets, and requires some practice.

Other Issues and Comments: In an effort to make Physlets even simpler to use, the authors are creating an extensive collection of problems that can easily be incorporated into courses. This should be available in the summer of 2003.