Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Sims for Science: Powerful Tools to Support Inquiry-Based Teaching

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Sims for Science: Powerful Tools to Support Inquiry-Based Teaching

Article excerpt


Educational simulations can be highly engaging and effective tools for helping students learn science and math--but they must be carefully developed and tested (Wieman, Adams, and Perkins 2008; deJong 2006; Finkelstein et al. 2006). Since 2002, the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado has been working to provide learning tools for students and teachers. The project has developed over 85 interactive simulations for teaching and learning science, all of which are freely available online (see "On the web").

Simulations--or sims--create animated, game-like environments in which students learn through scientist-like exploration. They emphasize the connections between real-life phenomena and the underlying science, make the invisible visible (e.g., electrons, photons, field vectors), include the visual models that experts use to aid their thinking, animate those models, and provide interactive controls and measuring tools. Currently, PhET offers sims for physics (e.g., Energy Skate Park, Circuit Construction Kit, and Gas Properties), chemistry (e.g., Salts and Solubility, pH Scale, and Models of the Hydrogen Atom), Earth science (e.g., Glaciers and Radioactive Dating Game), and math (e.g., Estimation, Equation Grapher, and Vector Addition).

With a highly intuitive interface and little text, the use of PhET sims can be customized to match a teacher's learning environment and learning goals. This flexibility allows for use in the classroom, lab, or as homework--either in groups or individually (see "On the web"). Many sims can also be used across a wide range of grade levels. For example, the Circuit Construction Kit can be used in an elementary or middle school level science unit on circuits and electron flow, or in a high school or college unit on the effects of wire resistivity (Vick 2010).


Although these sims can be used in a variety of ways, they are specifically designed to make scientist-like, inquiry-based activities that are productive and fun learning experiences for students. In this article, we focus on the design features of PhET sims that support inquiry learning, highlight their alignment with standards for several science disciplines, and provide examples of inquiry-based activities.


The PhET project was started by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman to improve the way science is taught and learned; he wanted to create sims that were aligned with and vetted through educational research. As a result, each sim is developed by a team of scientists, software engineers, science educators, and science education researchers to facilitate learning and address known student difficulties with the content. Each sim is tested through student interviews and observations of use, and the PhET project is actively engaged in research on effective design and classroom use of interactive simulations in general (Adams et al. 2008a, 2008b; see "On the web").

Sim design includes implicit guidance to help students direct their own productive exploration (Podolefsky, Perkins, and Adams, Forthcoming). Student thinking is guided and focused by the choice of controls, visual representations, animated models, and immediate feedback provided by visual changes during student explorations.

Folder-like "tabs" along the top of each sim allow scaffolding of content topics or complexity as students move from tab to tab in their explorations (e.g., from a tab with a magnet and compass to a tab with a magnet and a pick-up coil). Connections to the real world are used to anchor students' thinking to the familiar and pique their interest. Purposeful constraints--that is, what students are not allowed to do or see--are used to further guide productive exploration by reducing or filtering out real-world complexities that can distract from the key ideas.

This approach allows activities and homework assignments to be less directed and use more open, conceptual questions--questions that require students to engage in scientist-like exploration. …

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