EdTech Spotlights: Jen Varrella, of LEMS, using PhET for Science simulations

Hands-on, authentic learning has always been one of the hallmarks of education in Science classes.  But the challenge Science teachers consistently face is one of time, funds, and resources to complete labs and other interactive, student-centered lessons.  Plus, scientists today often complete their initial experiments in a controlled context with the use of computer simulations.  With this in mind, the University of Colorado created a free, large, digital database of interactive simulations in Science and Math called PhET (Physics Education Technology) and its continually growing.

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At Lucile Erwin Middle School, 8th grade Science teacher, Jennifer Varrella, has been implementing PhET with her students for several years.  Jen explained that she has had a dose of skepticism when it comes to technology instead of hands-on learning for students.  But she became motivated to utilize PhET because of time constraints and lack of necessary materials for certain experiments, like lasers and circuits.  Varrella spoke about the student engagement that comes with a balance of learning activities: sometimes students are excited and learn best from lab activities, sometimes students are most engaged by the visuals and wide variety outcomes found in PhET’s computer simulations.  She reiterated that “these simulations show visuals, and students can try and re-try in a controlled situation,” allowing for students to complete an activity as many as needed in order to reach the learning target.

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In getting started with PhET, it’s important to know the types of student devices needed and what issues to look out for.  But this may be the best aspect of PhET: it works for any device.  Jen started integrating these simulations years ago in a PC computer lab, and now visits the website on iPads in her classroom.  Students work in partners on iPads to complete the activities.  While not every simulation will work on every device, each contains an icon specifying if it runs on HTML5 (all devices, including iPads), Flash (will work on Chromebooks, but not iPads), or Java (PC or Mac computers only).  The simulations can also be organized by device so the user will know exactly which will work with their student devices.  Knowing this ahead of time, Varrella excitedly pointed out that PhET has never been glitchy and never let her down when she used the technology with her students, which is high praise for a computer program!

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Example set of simulations on PhET; notice the icon indicating if the sim runs on HTML5, Java, or Flash.

In discussing her appreciation for PhET and encouragement of other Science and Math teachers to try it out, she elaborated on its benefits.  Many of the simulations share functional aspects with testing tools that our students may need to practice, they tie in with Next Gen Science and other content standards, and with an account, teacher-made activities can be accessed for corresponding simulations, plus it’s all free.  Before finishing our conversation, Jen emphasized “there are certain things that simulations can’t replace, but part of science is computers and models.”  Scientists today often need to simulate before experimenting in order to consider all possibilities.  With PhET, technology is not a replacement for hands-on learning, but rather a complement in order to provide an authentic, high-level learning experience for students.

If you are interested in PhET or other Science and Math simulations, feel free to contact Jen Varrella or the EdTech Team, in order to find out how to utilize this fantastic tool at your school or class.

By Joe Zappa, @edtechtsd

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