PhET Interactive Simulations: Joining the PhET Community

Kathy Perkins and the PhET Team, University of Colorado Boulder

With a collection of 134 interactive simulations for teaching science and math, and over 100 million simulation uses per year worldwide, the PhET Interactive Simulations project has come a long way since its beginning in 2002. Founded by Carl Wieman as the "Physics Education Technology" (PhET) project, Carl’s vision was to make physics engaging and accessible for all learners, tapping into their natural curiosity about real world phenomena. Each PhET simulation creates a game-like environment where students can engage in exploration and discovery of key science and math concepts. The design supports learners to naturally and productively ask questions, conduct experiments, discover cause-effect relationships, reflect on results, or test their ideas; and it is grounded in education research to address known student difficulties. Today, PhET simulations cover many physics topics – from physical science ideas in elementary school to standard introductory physics to quantum mechanics and a smattering of advanced physics topics.

Making PhET simulations available for free to the entire community has been a priority from the beginning of the project. We leverage the Internet for easy dissemination at scale and use a Creative Commons Attribution license to allow free use by anyone, including commercial companies. To support those with no or poor Internet, we make it easy to download one simulation or the full website for offline use. In response to the declining support for Java and Flash technologies, which has threatened access to PhET simulations, we built a next generation HTML5 code base for PhET simulations and are engaged in a massive redesign and redevelopment effort. In 2017, more physics simulations will be published in HTML5, including Pendulum Lab, Projectile Motion, and Circuit Construction Kit among others.

Building a highly flexible resource – one that can be used with diverse learners, across different settings, and in a variety of ways – has been another priority. Educators know their students, their learning goals, their environment, their resources, and their constraints. Along the way, we have partnered with K12 and college educators in our community to identify and synthesize effective strategies for using PhET simulations and to develop teaching materials. Through these collaborations, for instance, we found that allowing students 5-10 minutes of open play and using challenge questions are two effective approaches for sim-based lessons.

Here we highlight many ways to join the PhET community, from getting started using PhET simulations to sharing your teaching materials to spreading the word. We invite those new to PhET to learn more, and those already part of our PhET community to deepen the connection.

Using PhET simulations at work or at home, online or offline: As a flexible tool, PhET simulations can be used to support many different scenarios – classroom teaching, afterschool programs, homeschooling, museum experiences, online learning, teacher training, tutoring, self-learning, or just independent play. At the PhET website, you will find a collection of teaching resources available that can help get you started, including tips for using PhET in a variety of ways and a collection of over 1,400 user-contributed teaching materials. In addition, each simulation’s webpage includes a description of its topics and learning goals, teacher tips, and easy access to all the lessons using that simulation. For example, you can find a collection of clicker questions using the Wave on a String simulation and lab activities using Circuit Construction Kit. Some teacher preparation programs creatively use these teaching materials for training – asking their pre-service teachers to access, evaluate, implement and revise a PhET lesson as part of their exploration of teaching with technology.

As you begin to explore the website and the simulations available, it is important to attend to the code base of the simulation – HTML5, Java, or Flash. HTML5 simulations will run on any device from computers to chromebooks to iPads. Java simulations, however, will only run on computers while Flash simulations will run on computers or chromebooks. If at first the Java simulations do not run on your computer, please visit our Help Center where you will find a collection of frequently asked questions to help you get them running. If you have an iPad, we have a new PhET iPad App that improves the user experience on iPads.

Connecting with PhET: If you use PhET simulations in your teaching or outreach work, or you just want to stay up-to-date, we encourage you to register to create a user account. Registering is free, and gives you access to the growing collection of teacher resources at the PhET website, and is one way to stay informed about new simulations, teacher tips, initiatives, and any scheduled maintenance. Our 250,000 registered users are a diverse group. The largest constituents are college faculty and K12 teachers, with smaller numbers of translators, researchers, parents, students, and others.

Contacting PhET: We love to hear from our user community. If you want to report a bug, share an idea for a new simulation or an improvement, or just seek technical support, you can contact us at While we cannot act on every suggestion, our community has been a great source of ideas. Indeed, the Bending Light simulation emerged from a simple emailed recommendation by teacher-user Brad Gearhart, and is now one of our most popular simulations with over 1.5M uses per year. We put every idea and improvement suggestion on our list, and revisit these when we are redesigning old or considering new simulations.

Sharing your teaching materials: From lab activities to homework, from clicker questions to student-created video explanations, educators are using PhET in many creative and effective ways. We encourage you to share your ideas with others! Your contributed lessons can be really helpful – especially for new teachers and teachers new to PhET – and can have a significant impact, reaching many teachers and learners. Our longtime colleague and K12 teacher Trish Loeblein has contributed numerous lessons to the PhET activity database, and while she is now retired, her activities are still downloaded more than 1 million times per year. Submission is easy – just login and then navigate to ‘Teacher Resources > Share Your Activity’.

Translating PhET: We are deeply grateful for our dedicated community of volunteer translators. Together, this community has translated the individual simulations into more than 80 languages and the entire website into 40 languages. However, for many languages, there are more simulations to be translated (see list). If you are bilingual, we invite you to join our efforts to bring these simulations to every language worldwide. Translating one simulation can take less than 30 minutes.

Joining the conversation: Our community of users is active and growing on our social media channels – particularly on Twitter (@PhETsims) – sharing simulation and lesson ideas for particular topics. We have ambitions to create an online space specifically for our teacher users, with discussion boards, simulation and lesson reviews and recommendations, etc., but currently do not have the resources needed to make big improvements.

Spreading the word: We applaud our community for sharing PhET simulations with their local communities, and beyond. At conferences, we often see community members giving talks on their own work with PhET simulations. We see recommendations pop up on forums, hear about teacher Professional Development events in school districts, and field inquiries from individuals who want to disseminate PhET’s full website installer to rural areas around the world. Your actions fuel PhET’s mission, and we thank you.

If you have been a member of the PhET community, we hope you’ve seen some of our recent improvements – more HTML5 simulations published, improved discovery of teacher activities, more active social media channels, more teacher support resources, and new sim-primer videos that are designed to provide a quick orientation so teachers can assess whether the simulation addresses their learning goals. In the years ahead, we will continue to work to enhance our community engagement and teacher resources, within the constraints of available funding. Watch for improvements in 2017, and please keep in touch.

Kathy Perkins is Director of PhET Interactive Simulations and Associate Professor Attendant Rank of Physics at University of Colorado Boulder.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.

B1 Simulation - Bending Light

The Bending Light simulation was inspired by a user’s suggestion.

Wave interference

College students explore the Wave Interference simulation in lab.