PhET is a suite of research-based interactive computer simulations for teaching and learning physics, chemistry, math, and other sciences. PhET simulations can be run online or downloaded for free from the PhET website
. The simulations are animated, interactive, and game-like environments where students learn through exploration. They emphasize the connections between real-life phenomena and the underlying science, and help make the visual and conceptual models of expert scientists accessible to students. PhET simulations are primarily developed for and tested with university and high school students, but have been found to be educational and fun for students "from grade school to grad school."
The name "PhET" was originally an acronym for "Physics Education Technology." However, the PhET site now includes simulations about many other subjects besides physics, so the acronym is too limited. The PhET team decided to keep the name because it is so widely recognized, but now it's just a name that doesn't stand for anything.
The Circuit Construction Kit simulation
allows students to build circuits out of virtual batteries, wires, bulbs, resistors, switches, and (in the AC version
) capacitors and inductors. The simulation can be used to replace or supplement experiments with real equipment in lecture demos, labs, and tutorials. Some advantages over real equipment are that the simulation allows students to see a visual model for current flow (virtual electrons flow through the wire), the equipment never breaks or wears out, and students can play around without fear of breaking things. Other simulations that can replace real equipment include Faraday's Electromagnetic Lab
, Pendulum Lab
, Geometric Optics
, Masses and Springs
, Wave Interference
, Wave on a String
, and Photoelectric Effect
Visualizing the Invisible
In addition to simulating phenomena that are directly observable with real equipment and/or in the natural world, many PhET simulations reveal expert models of invisible phenomena. For example, the Circuit Construction Kit simulation
shows electrons moving through the wires so that students can visualize current flow, the Gas Properties simulation
shows the microscopic behavior of molecules in a gas, and the Radio Waves and Electromagnetic Fields simulation
shows the behavior of an electric field. Showing these expert models is particularly useful in advanced topics such as quantum mechanics, where there is a whole suite of simulations
to help students visualize electrons, photons, atoms, wave interference, and other quantum phenomena that they cannot observe directly.
Helping Students Learn Concepts
Some PhET simulations, such as Circuit Construction Kit
and Gas Properties
, are extremely open-ended, and can be used to explore an entire chapter's worth of science content in great detail with many different activities. Other simulations are more targeted and address a single specific physical phenomenon or concept. For example, the Balloons and Static Electricity simulation
helps students visualize changes in charge distribution when a balloon is rubbed against a sweater and sticks to a wall, and the John Travoltage simulation
helps students visualize what happens when you rub your foot on the carpet and get a shock from a metal doorknob. The Reactants, Products and Leftovers simulation
helps address known student difficulties understanding rate equations by having them practice building sandwiches and then applying what they know about sandwiches to molecules. The Davisson-Germer: Electron Diffraction simulation
addresses an observed student difficulty with interpreting this classic experiment from the diagrams commonly used in modern physics textbooks.
Embedded Games and Challenges
Many PhET simulations include implicit or explicit games and challenges to motivate students to explore. In the Natural Selection simulation
, students are challenged to add mutations, predators, and food to try to keep a population of bunnies stable. In the Lasers simulation
, students are challenged to make a working laser. In the Maze Game simulation
, students are challenged to navigate a ball through a maze by controlling its position, velocity, or acceleration, thus building up a physical intuition for each of these quantities. Many of the math simulations
contain explicit games. For example, the Fourier: Making Waves simulation
includes a "wave game" to help students develop an intuition for how complex wave forms are built out of combinations of sine waves. In addition to these challenges embedded directly within the simulations, many simulations can be scaffolded with activities to create challenges. For example, teachers can ask students to develop a definition of electric field using the Radio Waves and Electromagnetic Fields simulation
, to develop a definition of magnetic field using the Faraday's Electromagnetic Lab simulation
, or to explain why light must be made of particles using the Photoelectric Effect simulation
Interactive learning environments
PhET simulations are not just animations. They are interactive learning environments that respond directly and immediately to input from the user. Wherever possible, students can interact with simulations by grabbing real and moving real objects, such as batteries, bulbs, magnets, handles, and switches, not just sliders or textboxes.
Fun, but not too fun
PhET simulations are designed to be fun and engaging, with cartoon-like images and silly features including the ability to add a dog, hand, or dollar bill to the circuit in the Circuit Construction Kit simulation
, the fire dog that cools off the ramp in the Ramp simulation
, or the laser exploding if you add too many photons in the Lasers simulation
. However, PhET simulations include only fun features that actually contribute to learning science, and features that interviews found to be fun but distracting have been removed.