Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Virtual Chemistry: Using the PhET pH Scale Simulation and the 5E Model to Enhance Students' pH Understanding

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Virtual Chemistry: Using the PhET pH Scale Simulation and the 5E Model to Enhance Students' pH Understanding

Article excerpt

Educational researchers have long advocated for the integration of computer simulations (sims) in science courses, citing the positive effects these tools have on students' science conceptual comprehension (Develaki 2017; Hannafin, West, and Shepard 2009; Lamb et al. 2011). In fact, Liao (2007) investigated the learning differences between students taught with computer simulations and those taught with traditional instructional methods, and found that computer-simulated instruction had a greater positive impact on student learning than did traditional instruction. Conceptual computer simulations offer the following advantages:

* Extend students' understandings of a concept by allowing them to modify variables and see immediate feedback (Hannel and Cuevas 2018);

* Offer students practical experience in which they can apply their scientific knowledge outside of a laboratory setting (de Jong 2006);

* Are interactive, allowing students to become immersed in an investigation resulting in greater learning gains (Kim 2006);

* Allow students to visualize and interact with invisible and/or abstract concepts such as molecular and atomic models, atomic bonding, etc.

In this article, a pH scale simulation created by PhET (Physics Educational Technology) Interactive Simulations at the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB) (Adams et al. 2008) will be discussed as a means to extend students' pH/acid/base conceptual understandings (see "On the web").


Computer simulations and animations began to be used in education in the mid-20th century to represent very complex or inaccessible phenomena. Today, many of these computer sims and animations are interactive, making them particularly useful to students of chemistry (Moore, Herzog, and Perkins 2013). PhET, initiated by Nobel Laureate Carl Wiemann, began as the Physics Education Technology Project at UCB and initially included only physics-related simulations, but has since evolved to include simulations related to mathematics, biology, chemistry, and Earth science. Wiemann's aim was to advance science and mathematics pedagogy by creating computer simulations aligned with standards and vetted by educational researchers (Perkins, Loeblein, and Dessau 2010).

PhET contains 127 interactive sims free for public use, 30 of which are related to chemistry. PhET sims are utilized by the K-12 educational community and university faculty to encourage students to learn about complex scientific processes through exploration of and interaction with the sims. The strengths of these simulations include their ability to make abstract concepts concrete (such as the Molecule Shapes simulation that allows students to easily visualize and manipulate three-dimensional models of molecules); their inclusion of immediate, dynamic feedback (such as solution color changes); their intuitive nature (allows students to concentrate on conceptual understanding rather than how to work the simulation); their embedded, implicit scaffolding that allows students to proceed through a simulation with little guidance; their connections to authentic, real-world experiences; and their gamelike, challenging designs (Perkins, Loeblein, and Dessau, 2010).

Sample 5E lesson plan using the PhET Ph scale simulation


Safety note: Each student should be wearing chemical-splash goggles during this demonstration. To generate interest and pique students' curiosity about pH, the teacher conducts a pH Rainbow Tube demonstration (Flinn Scientific 2015). Directions for the full demonstration, including chemical preparations are available at Flinn Scientific (see "On the Web"). Prior to the demonstration, the teacher should obtain a demonstration tube (with stoppers on each end) and fill it with a dilute solution of universal indicator (green in color), within 3-4 cm of the top of the tube. When students and teacher are ready for the demonstration, the teacher removes one of the tube's stoppers and adds two drops of 0. …

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