The PhET group at the University of Colorado has created a suite of approximately 50 physics simulations to engage students in learning. Some simulations dealing with chemistry and mathematics are also available. These simulations cover a broad range of physics topics from basic kinematics through modern physics and quantum mechanics. The design and development of the activities are based on both existing research on how people learn physics and extensive testing and assessment of learning gains connected resulting from the simulations.
The simulations are designed to help students gain both a good qualitative and quantitative understanding of Motion, Work, Energy, Power, Sound & Waves, Heat & Thermodynamics, Electricity, Magnets, Circuits, Light & Radiation, Quantum Phenomena, Chemistry, and Math.
Target Student Population:
Although mostly aimed at the introductory undergraduate level, many of these simulations can be used for high school and middle school students because of their fundamental, conceptual nature. Some of the simulations cover advanced topics such as lasers, conductivity, and quantum tunneling, as well.
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills:
All of these simulations should be tied to a course or other learning experience. The user will need some background in the specific topic(s) covered to take full advantage of each application.
Some of the applets will not work with Macs, but these are clearly labeled. Most simulations will need Java 1.4, Java Web Start, or Flash to run.
Evaluation and Observation
The content of these simulations is excellent.
One of the most important, and unique, aspects of these materials is their connection to the results of education research and the resultant advances in pedagogy that have occurred over the past 20 years in physics. The simulations address conceptual hurdles that many students face and have been studied extensively. Even more noteworthy is the research and learning assessment that has been pursued to understand and improve the impact of these particular learning tools on students. Many of the papers and results on this physics education research is available at http://www.colorado.edu/physics/phet/web-pages/research.html.
These simulations provide an excellent balance between application and abstract model building. Most applets are designed to engage students by relating to common experiences, but also to present the underlying physical models that scientists use to understand these experiences. The physical accuracy of the simulations is uniformly excellent.
The topics covered in these simulations range throughout all of physics. They are presented in ways that can be incorporated into a wide range of classes and class types, from very traditional lecture settings to studio physics and independent exploration. Many of the simulations present their results using measuring devices and/or graphs to help students grasp the ways in which scientific information is often displayed.
Instructors should emphasize that the microscopic models presented in these simulations are models used for understanding particular phenomena. They may not be accurate on a microscopic level. For example,
the movement of charge in circuits illustrated as large uniformly moving spheres helps student grasp the concepts of moving charge in currents but does not reflect the transport of conduction electrons in metals. The PhET researchers have studied the impact of these models and found that they do not, in general, cause misunderstanding for students.
These materials are still under development, so they vary in their completeness and polish. The authors note the level of development on each simulation.
Some of the simulations, most notably "John Travoltage", have aspects that are just plain silly. But this too has it's place in the classroom.
Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool
These simulations are designed specifically to attract students and engage them in the learning. They can be used both qualitatively and, in many cases, quantitatively for student-driven explorations.
As discussed above, the model-building aspect of these simulations is a strength. Many illustrate microscopic concepts that can not be displayed in any real experiment. Studies of these simulations have shown that the careful focus on the relevant physical quantities can be more effective for student learning than physical experiments with all the additional distractions.
The simulations themselves are pedagogically neutral and can be applied in many different ways: as pre-class activities, in-class activities, as virtual laboratories, or with homework assignments. There are materials provided on the PhET web site that will help teachers make effective use of the simulations. This includes presentations and research papers by the PhET team and a growing lesson plan database (http://phetdb.colorado.edu/ where instructors can share their experiences.
Some of the simulations lack quantitative measuring capabilities, limiting the range of activities for which they can be employed.
Because of the openness of these simulations, teachers will need to craft the activities given to the students and guide their efforts. With the best of these applets, students can spend a great deal of time having fun with the simulations without necessarily grasping the physics that the instructor wishes to be understood.
Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty
Use of most of the applets is very intuitive. It is straight forward to move objects and change properties. Graphs are used to present many of the physical results in the quantitative simulations. Most simulations start with a simple instruction such as "drag" or "hang".
The applications can be downloaded to run on local computers rather than over the Internet.
Help is available for most of the simulations. In many cases, this is through on-screen comments giving the "action" that a particular tool will perform.
In some applets the amount of information being displayed is large, which results and somewhat cramped displays. In most cases, the display can be simplified to focus on one thing at a time.
Some of the simulations have no help while others are in early "beta" development so that the help is somewhat limited.
Other Issues and Comments:
New visitors to the site should start with the top simulations list for the best examples of these materials. Particularly noteworthy is the Circuit Construction Kit. The Masses and Springs Lab and Gas Properties labs are both good examples of student-driven virtual experiments. The Moving Man applet can be very helpful in showing the relationships between kinematic quantities and for instruction in the comparison of graphical descriptions of an object's motion and the actual motion. The Wave on a String simulation wide range of uses because of the physical parameters available for modification.
The research foundation and continuing development of these materials make them unique. The database for instructors to share lesson plans is also very important for future development.