Expanding PhET Interactive Science Simulations to Grades 4-8: A Research-Based Approach

Colorado’s PhET project and Stanford’s AAALab will develop and study learning from interactive simulations designed for middle school science classrooms. Products will include 35 interactive sims with related support materials freely available from the PhET website; new technologies to collect real-time data on student use of sims; and guidelines for the development and use of sims for this age population. The team will also publish research on how students learn from sims.

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Project Evaluator: 
Stephanie Chasteen
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In this DRK12 project, the PhET Interactive Simulations group at the University of Colorado and the AAALab at Stanford University are working together to produce and study learning from interactive simulations designed for middle school science classrooms. We are developing a suite of 35 high-quality, interactive simulations covering physical science topics. These simulations include innovative technologies that provide teachers with real-time, formative feedback on how their students are using the simulations.  The research investigates how various characteristics of the simulation design influence student engagement and learning, and how this response varies across grade-level and diverse populations. The research also includes an investigation of different ways of using simulations in class, and how these approaches affect student preparation for future learning when they are no longer using a given simulation.

      The original PhET simulations were designed for college use, but overtime, they have migrated to lower grades.  The current suite of free research-based, interactive PhET science simulations are used over 10 million times per year.  To optimize their utility for middle school science, we are conducting interviews with diverse 4-8th graders using 25 existing PhET simulations to help identify successful design alternatives where needed, and to formulate generalized design guidelines. In parallel, pull-out and classroom-based studies are investigating a variety of lesson plans to identify the most promising approach. These studies include controlled comparisons that collect both qualitative and quantitative data.

      On the basis of our emerging design principles, we are developing 10 new simulations in consultation with teachers, who are helping to identify high need areas for simulations. These new simulations also include a back-end data collection capability that can collect, aggregate, and display student patterns of simulation use for teachers and researchers. The design of the data collection and presentation formats depends on an iterative process done in collaboration with teachers to identify the most useful information and display formats. A final evaluation compares student learning with and without this back-end formative assessment technology.   

This project is working to transform the way science is taught and learned in Grades 4-8 so that it is more effective at promoting scientific thinking and content learning, while also being engaging to diverse populations. The project is expected to impact many, many thousands of teachers and students through its production of a suite of 35 free, interactive science simulations optimized for Grades 4-8 along with “activity templates”, guidance, and real time feedback to teachers to support pedagogically effective integration into classrooms. Finally, the intellectual merit of the project is its significant contributions to understanding when, how, and why interactive simulations can be effective learning and research tools.

Project Materials