Abstract Science Concepts Come to Life with PhET Simulations

September 21, 2011

Digital citizenship

Today’s Digital Age students expect large amounts of information at their fingertips.  They thrive on interaction with digital technologies that allow them to access information quickly and easily.  So how can teachers engage their students when textbooks just won’t cut it anymore? The University of Colorado has answered this need with PhET: fun, interactive, research-based science simulations that are offered online for free.

PhET simulations allow students to visually comprehend abstract concepts in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science by animating what is invisible to the eye through the use of graphics and intuitive user controls.  For example, you can use atoms to Build a Molecule and manipulate it in a 3D environment.  Or you can view electric fields and determine how charged bodies interact in Electric Field Hockey.

Another potential of PhET simulations is their ability to help students make connections and build their own understanding by experimenting with changing variables.  As you manipulate the simulation controls, you can immediately view a cause-and-effect relationship between variables that would be impossible to recreate in a classroom.  In Bending Light, discover how changing from air to water to glass changes the bending angle of light and affects speed and wavelength.  Or explore how gravity on different planets (with or without a jetpack!) changes potential and kinetic energy in Energy Skate Park.

Before you start playing around with PhET simulations, I have to warn you: they are extremely addictive.  Hours can fly by while you explore the principles of quantum wave interference or repeatedly shock John Travolta with static electricity.  And while some administrators question the effectiveness of placing students in front of computers, PhET takes full advantage of the potential for technology to transform the way we reach our students and inspire learning.

You can check out all the PhET simulations at https://phet.colorado.edu/.