6 Reasons Why You Should Include Simulations in Your STEM Lessons!

In my first year of teaching a mentor teacher showed me PhET Simulations and it changed my curriculum forever. Sounds like click bait doesn’t it? But it’s true! The first PhET simulation I ever saw was the Energy Skate Park and I was blown away by its versatility. Since then I have implemented the use of many PhET simulations in my Physics, Conceptual Physics, and Physical Science classes. I use them in my classroom in a variety of ways and for a number of purposes. A simulation does not have to be limited to a hands-on lab replacement. Here are six different ways that I use PhET simulations in my classroom:

1. Low Error Quantitative Analysis

Coming from a science background I know that the more data points my students can collect the better their analysis will be. I also know that the average 15 year old can only pay attention for about 30 seconds, even my seniors have trouble consistently taking data, and I get less than an hour each day for a lab. Reality is not always ideal.

I know that the more data points my students can collect the better their analysis will be.… Click To Tweet

Sometimes using a simulation like Bending Light or Charges and Fields let my students take lots of data more accurately and in less time than a hands-on lab. They can change variables with a tap of their finger and get instant results. They can change more variables than we can control in a classroom setting and still quickly return to default settings. This allows them to gather enough data in one class period to make the data interpretations necessary to see how these values influence each other. In the Bending Light simulation students can change both materials through which light passes, the incident angle, the wavelength of light and how it is represented (as a particle or a wave). Doing this lab in the classroom students would be limited to only changing the incident angle and one of the materials. Using this PhET simulation means that my students can experience not only a faster and more accurate lab experience but one that I cannot duplicate in my classroom.

2. We Just Can’t Do That…

When we study Astronomy, gravity beyond Earth and orbits, I’m limited on hands-on activities. Teachers do some heavy lifting, but I don’t think any of us can move a planet. “I can’t bring Jupiter in here kids,” as I tell my students, so PhET is the next best thing. The PhET Gravity And Orbits simulation allows students to model some simple orbiting systems and see the results. In my classroom I could have one student pretend to be the moon and orbit another pretending to be the Earth and try not to let them trip over each other as they orbit the sun but … why? Such a model brings its own misconception of size, scale, and speed even if they can carry it out successfully. I want students to see the effects of changing the mass of the star and realize that this change in force has a direct effect on the planet’s orbit. I want them to think about the height of a satellite above a planet and think about how that changes with the size of it. In a nutshell I want them to play with all of these adjustments, to think critically about what they see and apply that to new problems I present them with. Students can literally play with this simulation and discover some amazing connections beyond the equations I would teach them.

Teachers do some heavy lifting, but I don’t think any of us can move a planet. @BarnettDreyfull Click To Tweet

PhET Simulation ClassFlowSimilarly, we don’t have a particle accelerator and most Chemistry curriculum doesn’t include making atoms from scratch. The Build An Atom simulation allows students to add protons, neutrons, and electrons without blowing anything up. The simulation helpfully identifies the element, highlights its location on the periodic table, and can indicate whether or not it is in a stable form. There is even a game option to test their understanding! And no one has to be worried about a crater formerly known as the science building.

3. Can You See What I See?

Science, however constant, can be difficult to visualize. Some stuff is just small like atoms or microbes. Some stuff is downright invisible, as in not actually visible to the human eye. While studying electric or magnetic fields we have lots of indicators of those fields but no magic camera that lets us see the fields. Enter PhET’s Faraday’s Law and Charges & Fields simulations. Faraday’s Law is something that can be demonstrated in the classroom but sometimes I feel like I’m selling the Emperor some new clothes, “See kids? Right here is where the magnetic field lines are the closest together.” We can’t see magnetic field lines but with this simulation students can. Electric fields can’t be seen either even though their effects might be. The Charges & Fields simulation allows students to see the fields around different charged particle arrangements. Students could create complex patterns and see the resulting field. They can measure its strength, determine the size of the force on another particle and more. I can set up a certain arrangement of particles ahead of time and ask students to describe the field that they would see. With a check of a box now students will be able to see this invisible electric field around the specific arrangement I wanted them to discuss.

4. Fun Applications and Extensions

PhET“Ok students, turn off gravity,” are instructions I can’t normally expect students to be able to follow. But they can in one of my all time favorite PhET simulations, the Energy Skate Park: Basics. A deceptively simple looking simulation, the Energy Skate Park allows students to investigate motion, gravity, energy, friction, and more. Starting with a simple U-shaped track students can turn friction off and on, change the mass of the skater, and change the value of gravity the skater experiences. They can see real-time bar graphs, energy vs. time line graphs, and pie charts of different values as they watch the skater’s motion. Changing the skater’s location to the moon, or Jupiter, or space, allows students to test the connection between potential energy and gravity. Students have so much fun with this lab and then they find their favorite part: they can make their own track. I have had seniors go home and continue to play with this game, taking screenshots of their favorite tracks to show me what they’ve made. They begin to challenge each other: “Can you make it go through a loop-de-loop? I bet you can’t make it make a bigger jump! Oh yeah, but mine did this …”

The Balancing Act simulation about balanced torque is another one that quickly evolves into a competition amongst students. There are quite a few ways to get a balanced see saw (the “right answer”) and students often don’t believe another has solved it until they can prove it. That means students are explaining their solutions to each other, debating their accuracy and hopefully coming to an agreement. Ha! I’ve tricked them into fun peer review!

Ha! I’ve tricked them into fun peer review! @barnettdreyfuss Click To Tweet

5. Intuitive Proportions

There are many times that I don’t need students to solve for a number, I just want them to be able to infer a change based on what they know. Many of my students would rather solve a calculation question than answer a conceptual one. Without a number backing it they often don’t understand the proportions in equations. I use the Wave on a String simulation to show students how changes in frequency affect the wavelength of a wave. It only takes a few adjustments for them to see and understand the pattern they may have missed with calculations. The Forces and Motion: Basics simulation allows students to apply differently sized forces to differently sized objects. I can set-up the simulation to mirror a problem we are discussing in class and students get to see it played out in the simulation. This helps them see the object speed off with a larger acceleration when they push on it for example, backing up what they see in their calculations. In the Ohm’s Law simulation, its namesake equation increases and decreases in size as students adjust values, helping them visualize changes in variables.

6. Simplify to Clarify

PhET SimulationOver-simplification can cause problems, and can frustrate students. While studying motion I have to tell students to ignore wind, air resistance, shape and size of the object, etc. But in order to get them to understand one thing a time, I need them to concentrate on one thing at a time. There are several PhET simulations that offer simple yet highly visual examples of phenomenon that really help make it clear to students. The Friction simulation shows students what happens at the microscopic level when there is friction between two books. The Balloons and Static Electricity lets me show students what is happening with invisible charged particles when a balloon sticks to the wall. Perhaps the silliest and most memorable is the John Travoltage simulation. By rubbing John Travoltage’s feet against the carpet we can see cartoonishly large electrons course through him until his hand is brought close to a metal doorknob grounding him. A loud “Zzzaaapppp!” makes kids laugh every time. They can see this demo in class but being able to see it in a simplified manner makes all the difference.

Whether my students complete a prescribed lab, play them as a game, or see them briefly as part of a lecture, they love PhET simulations. The available depth and variety of simulations means that there is something for every unit and these simulations are embedded throughout my curriculum all year.

Guest Blogger Bree Barnett Dreyfuss is a physics teacher at Amador Valley High School and serves as a mentor at the Exploratorium Leadership Institute.


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