Oct 29, 2013

#inacol13 Tuesday - PhET Sims for Science Inquiry

Please note: These are rough notes. Editing may be needed and clarification may be needed upon further review. I apologize for any typos and/or incomplete/inaccurate information. Information entered in this blog is replicated out to various online outlets automatically.

Why I chose this one:
This one described itself as being enhanced with HTML5, Touch, and having other features. I really have no idea what PhET is or what it does. Turns out the program is being hosted by CU-Boulder, my old stomping grounds for a brief time many years ago.

What I learned/Am learning:


Support learning inquiry

  • Students asking "What if" questions
  • Authentic scientific process skills
  • Use data and evidence to support ideas
  • Explore cause and effect relationships
  • "Safe Exploration" and rapid inquiry cycles
PhET - 128 interactive simulations in science and math - Free!

Advance science literacy worldwide through the free simulations

PhET is available as a 280 MB download and distribute on usb sticks.

Team of faculty, post-ops, k12 teachers, software developers put together the resources.

Student goals
  • Science and math should accessible and enjoyable (not "FUN," but deeper enjoyment)
  • Make connections to everyday life
  • Achieve conceptual learning (not just the 'right' answer, but understanding why and how)
  • Scientific exploration - multiple learning outcomes
  • Ownership of the learning experience
PhET uses an NPR-style model - grants, sponsors, donations

Creative Commons Attribution, open use.
Over 40 million runs per year
Easy to translate: over 4000 translations in 70 languages (all crowd-sourced, free!)
Source code is open and free - see the code and use the code to change the simulations
Conversion to HTML5

Was in Java and Flash. iPads don't run Flash. Chromebooks won't run Java. That system no longer worked. Spent last year in HTML5 so it can run in web browser. Targeting iPads and Chromebooks because that is where schools are sitting these days.

HTML5 will help make their simulations more readily accessible for people with various needs.


  • Pick and choose which sims to use
  • Your environment and Your learning goals
  • There is a database of activities (more than 500) - 3rd grade to undergrad - differentiation
The combination of the sims and real-world tools provides a robust learning environment. The sims do not replace real-world tools. The two are related and offer different advantages and disadvantages.

Is the sim engaging? (Demo was "Fraction Matcher"). Is the student "ignoring" the instructor? 

For testing, PhET tries to find test students WITHOUT prior knowledge. Not everything is inherently "intuitive." They have a new grant to develop sims aimed at Middle School students in order to bring that intuitiveness into a broader appeal.  The newer sims have tabs that separate certain ideas - scaffolding.

Support inquiry: Accurate, dynamic, visual representations. When I change something, it changes instantly on screen. Use of sliders, user interaction, etc - user controls the sim.  Allow impossible or difficult actions (change mass of sun, battery never dies, etc).

Make the invisible visible. Student can watch energy, electrons, etc. Allow students to change certain aspects on certain tabs - limit choices at first and expand into more choices.

In-Class activity, Demo, Concept questions, homework, group work, address difficult learning goals.

Begin with open play (let students find controls)
Take advantage of sim features
Short activity sheet
Minimal wording
Scaffold - tables highly effective

"Find all the ways to..."
"What is the largest..."
"List the essential items to..."
"What are two ways to.."
"How can you make..."

Future of PhET: HTML5, Touch, increase flexibility (sim mashups of multiple sims into one custom sim), Assessment (get data out, put data in, how being used, etc)

Various changes: interface, layout, etc. They love to hear feedback from users - helps in the redesign, report bugs, or ask questions about the sims.

Companion Site:
  • Guides
  • "Primers"
  • Easier searching
  • Community Forum
  • In the works (being developed, need donors to support funding)

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