Using PhET simulations to replace real equipment in lab – Circuit Construction Kit
Labs and tutorials that use equipment such as circuits can be modified to use PhET simulations instead. Research shows that substituting the PhET Circuit Construction Kit simulation for real equipment in a variety of contexts leads to improved conceptual learning in the best cases, and the same conceptual learning in the worst cases. There are many advantages to using PhET simulations over real equipment: They are easy to use, so students can play around and modify the experiment quickly and easily without fear of breaking the equipment. They have productive constraints to focus attention on the most important aspects of the experiment (e.g. bulb brightness and current flow) rather than on irrelevant aspects (e.g. wire color and length). Finally, if real equipment is not available, PhET simulations provide the opportunity to do multiple experiments with a single piece of equipment: a computer.
Context for Use
Description and Teaching Materials
The tutorial study used tutorials from the University of Washington:
The PhET team has developed an alternative tutorial which attempts to take advantage of the unique characteristics of the simulation, rather than just inserting it into a tutorial designed for use with real equipment:
Teaching Notes and Tips
Members of the PhET team (Finkelstein et al. 2004, 2005) did a research study in which they replaced the equipment in a DC circuits lab with the Circuit Construction Kit simulation for half the lab sections in an introductory college physics course. They found that students who used the simulation were able to build a real circuit in less time than students who used the real equipment, and performed better on a challenge question immediately following the laboratory and on final exam questions on DC circuits two months later.
In another study, researchers (Keller et al. 2005) replaced the equipment in an inquiry-based tutorial from Tutorials in Introductory Physics with the Circuit Construction Kit simulation for half the recitations sections. They found that students using the simulations performed slightly better or about the same. This study shows that simulations can be effective not just in traditional labs, but in carefully researched inquiry-based curricula.
In another study, researchers (Keller et al. 2006) replaced the equipment in a lecture demo on circuits with the Circuit Construction Kit simulation in one section of a large lecture introductory physics class. They found that the students who saw the demonstration with the simulation performed significantly better on a concepTest than the students who saw the demonstration with the real equipment. They speculated that the improved performance was due to the model of current flow given by the moving electrons in the simulation, which is not apparent when viewing real circuits. To test this hypothesis, they created a version of the simulation that does not show electrons and did a follow-up study in lab: After completing one circuits lab with real equipment, all students in a large lecture course completed their second circuits lab using the simulation, half using the version with electrons and half without. Both groups performed equally on measures of conceptual understanding, and both groups rated the simulation lab as significantly more enjoyable and more useful for their learning than any other lab in the course. However, the students who used the simulation without the electrons rated it as significantly more enjoyable and more useful for their learning than did the students who used the simulation with the electrons. The researchers speculate that the students using the simulation with electrons found the lab less interesting because the electrons made the current model so apparent that they took away some of the challenge.
References and Resources
These papers discuss research showing that students learn as well or better in a laboratory with the real equipment replaced by the Circuit Construction Kit simulation:
- Can Computer Simulations Replace Real Equipment in Undergraduate Laboratories? N. D. Finkelstein, K. K. Perkins, W. Adams, P. Kohl, and N. Podolefsky, PERC Proceedings, 2004.
- When learning about the real world is better done virtually: a study of substituting computer simulations for laboratory equipment, N.D. Finkelstein, W. K. Adams, C. J. Keller, P. B. Kohl, K. K. Perkins, N. S. Podolefsky, S. Reid, R. LeMaster , Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 1, 010103, 2005.
- Assessing the Effectiveness of a Computer Simulation in Introductory Undergraduate Environments, C. J. Keller, N. D. Finkelstein, K. K. Perkins, and S. J. Pollock, PERC Proceedings, 2006.
This paper discusses research showing that students learn just as well when using Tutorials in Introductory Physics with the real equipment replaced by the Circuit Construction Kit simulation:
- Assessing the effectiveness of a computer simulation in conjunction with Tutorials in Introductory Physics in undergraduate physics recitations, C. J. Keller, N.D. Finkelstein, K. K. Perkins, and S. J. Pollock, PERC Proceedings, 2005.