This website offers research-based simulations that can be integrated into lessons. The simulations are interactive allowing students to visually explore different concepts. These simulations use graphics and intuitive controls (like click and drag, sliders and radio buttons) to animate what would normally no be visible. The website also offers worksheets, homework, syllabus and lesson plan ideas using their simulations provided. The simulations deal with many different subject areas including physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, and math. There are simulations appropriate for all ages from elementary students to university students. The simulations and curriculum guides are also available in many different languages.
This activity the teacher used as a lab in their Chemical Foundations, Atoms, Molecules, and Ions unit. Students in this lab are able to use the PhET simulation to investigate how to build their own atom and figure out for themselves what makes the nucleus stable or unstable. Then, students also use the simulation to discover the rule for how elements are named and how they become negative or positive. Student then without PhET design and draw their own atoms and ions as directed by the lab using the rules they came up with using the simulation. With this lab a teacher was able to come up with an activity allowing students to discover properties about atoms that in a high school classroom would not have been possible without simulation.
This is a lab using the Neon Lights and Other Discharge Lamps simulation. Students discover how E/M light is produced by exploring the PhET Neon and Other Discharge Lamps Simulation. Students are given time to “play” with the simulation on their own, then they are give a worksheet that requires them to manipulate the simulation in certain ways to answer questions. Finally students try to apply what they have learned with application questions and critical thinking questions given in another worksheet for homework.
This example shows a teacher integrating PhET simulations into direct instruction. The teacher has a powerpoint on electric energy and capacitance and then embedded within the powerpoint are screen shots from the Circuit Construction Kit and Charge Field simulations showing the concepts. There are also notes to supplement the power point explaining how the teacher used the simulations during the lecture to show the concepts. Instead of having students explore the simulations this teacher used them in whole group instruction. They also showed that you can use the simulations to obtain graphics to demonstrate ideas that normally you can’t see.
Students in this example use the Gravity Force Lab simulation to complete an entire lab activity from home. The teacher hands out prompts to design experiments to find the relationship between mass and gravitational force and between gravitational force and distance. Students are able to carry out the lab using only the simulation and excel to plot their data. They are only given the prompts and then using only the simulation they have to design their own lab and bring back their findings to report to the class.
There are many advantages to using PhET in the classroom. First, there are simulations for many different subjects including physics, biology, chemistry, earth science, and math. These simulations allow for students to interact with processes in science that would not normally be possible in a classroom scenario, such as really small things (an atom) or really big things (a glacier). The simulations can be used in different types of lessons, as full class demonstrations in lectures, as small group labs, or for individually done homework. They are great because with the internet they can be accessed from anywhere, and if you download them onto your computer they can be accessed without the internet.
Many of the simulations cannot be used by a student alone, guidance is needed. However, the website is aware of this and has a symbol on the simulations letting the teacher know that guidance is recommended with the simulation. All simulations have limitations but the website does not provide the teacher with what the limitations of the simulations are, you have to figure them out for yourself. Unless a classroom has many computers using simulations can only be teacher-based learning with the students watching. Also, for hands-on learners simulations only show you how things work but in the end a student isn’t manipulating anything but a computer program. Teachers can forget that simulations aren’t hands-on and they are only to supplement instructional modes, not replace.
The PhET website has general guidelines for teachers using their simulations. These guidelines help teachers design activities using guided inquiry strategies. In summary, the PhET guidelines advise teachers to have specific goals in mind for their activities as you can see in the Gravity Force lab’s student objectives, make activities where they discover things themselves as you can see in the E/M Waves and Build an Atom lessons, have little or no directions on how to use the simulations as shown by the allotted play time in the E/M Waves lesson, that connect to prior knowledge and real world scenarios, invite or require collaboration, allow students to check their understanding, and require the students to reason with words or diagrams as is shown in the Gravity Force Lab. Other tips for using these simulations are to ensure that the sim works on all computers you are trying to use it on before instruction because sometimes school computers don’t work as you would like them to. Also, ensure the content not the technology is the focus of your instruction. Make sure your students have access to a computer and the internet if you assign any activities for homework. Finally, ensure that proper guidance is given before, during, and after simulation so that students understand what it is they are seeing and discover the knowledge you wanted them to discover with the simulation.