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Meet Our Founder and Nobel Laureate, Carl Wieman:
Carl Wieman uses PhET's Friction simulation in class.
What was the inspiration behind PhET?
The beginning of PhET really goes back to around 1990. I was working with Professor Marty Goldman on a
project called Physics 2000 where I got introduced
to the idea of online interactive simulations.
At that point I was developing them to explain my research in laser cooling and Bose-Einstein
condensation. But as I gave talks on this all over the world in different settings, I discovered the
simulations were really quite amazing compared to other teaching tools, in that they seemed to work very
well and were very engaging. People learned a lot from them whether they were physics professors at a
colloquium or middle school students.
So I kept thinking about how to incorporate them into teaching more widely, and then I won an NSF
Distinguished Teaching award. I used some of the money to get some sims started, and very soon after, I
won the Nobel Prize. And so for us, my wife and me, it seemed like a natural thing to donate part of
this big pot of money that came out of the sky to really get this project started. I used some of the
money from the Nobel prize to hire the teams of people that were really necessary to develop and test
sophisticated interactive simulations. And, I was lucky enough to get very good people and things just
took off from there. For us, it has been very rewarding to see how successful this investment has been.
In your opinion, what makes PhET sims special?
Using the sims as a teacher, which I've done a lot myself, one thing that makes them special is that they get the
students really engaged. The students follow the sims, they're interested in it, they want to explore with it. But
it also brings in real-world experiences and connects up what they know from the outside world with the kind of
book-learning we're trying to achieve. I think that it's very important in science not just to produce more
scientists, although that's clearly important, but also to allow everybody to understand science better and to
understand the role it plays in our lives. The sims bridge this gap in a way no other educational materials can.
They strip out a lot of the technical jargon and the mathematics and therefore make the basic science much more
accessible and understandable. The students develop their own mental models of physical phenomena. That's a much
deeper, more useful level of understanding than memorizing procedures and facts, which is a lot of what people get
in classes, but is really not real expertise in the subject.
Another very nice feature is they really invite students to engage in scientific thinking themselves. By interacting
with the sims, the students test things, make predictions, develop models so they see what science really is all
about. With the sims, the invisible becomes visible, and they can see what atoms and light are doing. This process
of discovering really helps them identify as scientists. They can see how "I can discover things and understand
things." Suddenly, larger groups of people who would never have experienced this before (including in particular
groups very underrepresented in science) can start thinking of themselves, essentially, as potential scientists.
So what makes the sims so effective in reaching students?
There's all kind of efforts to bring technology into education. But, what we've strived for, and I think what makes
PhET unique, is the fact that it's based on looking very carefully at what we know about learning, how the human
brain learns, and builds into the technology the activities that achieve that. That's done by having very good
software engineers work with excellent scientists who know the materials and educational researchers who understand
how people learn. They do a very careful iterative process of testing how effectively these work, refining them,
changing them, and improving them until we have something that we can really be quite confident achieves the desired
interaction and learning. I think if you look at the most educational technology, it really has not gone through
this sort of developmental process, and it's not building on research on learning.
Where do you think PhET can improve?
PhET has made great strides, but I see there's still a great deal to be done, and a great many future opportunities.
Every time I turn around I notice something, whether it's biology or paleontology, where I think, "Gee, a PhET
simulation would really help teach this!" And of course that applies down into grade school and up into graduate
school. So there are enormous opportunities.
But one of the things we need to work on is more research showing their effectiveness. The research so far has been
really dominated by our own group, and I think there are tremendous opportunities to do more research on
understanding both how to optimize what students are learning and how they're best learning from PhET sims. From
that work, we can really understand how to use educational technology in more effective ways than people are doing
Also, another area where I see we need to improve is providing more support and guidance to teachers on how to use
these powerful simulations in the most educationally effective ways. Because this is a new technology, teachers are
not familiar with them. We need to support them with more professional development so they can take full advantage
of the capability and power of an interactive simulation for education.
Reflecting on the past 10 years, has the project met your hopes and expectations?
When I first started PhET, I didn't really have nearly the grand vision it's turned into. I just saw lots of
opportunities to use the sims in classes I was teaching and other people were teaching. I thought, "This would make
it a lot easier to understand material and make it a lot more interesting. Simulations could do a better job of
showing students how physics relates to the real world around them." And it was only as we developed more and more
sims and we saw the use growing throughout the world that I began to see the broader potential for PhET impacting
education. What really surprised me was the international span of it, how they are being translated into so many
languages and being used by many tens of millions of students all across the world.
What are some of the challenges facing PhET?
One of the ongoing challenges for the PhET project is that it's expensive to develop such a high-quality product and
keep it continually upgraded and up to date. For example, technology is changing all the time. There are new
platforms, new hardware, new software. That puts great demands on a project like PhET to keep at the cutting edge,
to keep upgrading, to keep branching out so it can be used on tablets or the next thing that's going to come after
that. That's just part of the price of working with technology that one has to do, but it has a significant price
that one has to face. We're hoping that people will see how they can help support PhET as we did, to build it to
enhance science education.
Help bring PhET simulations to the iPad!
Featured New Sims:
We are excited to offer the latest earth science simulation: Plate Tectonics. Explore how
plates move on the surface of the earth. Change temperature, composition, and thickness of plates.
Discover how to create new mountains, volcanoes, or oceans!
After the activity, students will be able to:
- Describe the differences between oceanic and continental crust
- Predict how changes in composition and temperature change crust density and buoyancy
- Draw a time series for different types of plate boundaries and their motions
- Deduce the type of plate boundary given images or descriptions of surface features.
- Explain which types of plate boundaries create crust, and which destroy crust
Explore Fractions Intro while
you help yourself to 1/3 of a chocolate cake and wash it down with 1/2 a glass of orange juice!
Create your own fractions using fun interactive objects. Match shapes and numbers to earn stars in
the fractions games. Challenge yourself on any level you like. Try to collect lots of stars!
Learning goals include:
- Predict and explain how changing the numerator or denominator of a fraction affects the
- Convert between a picture of a fraction, a numeric fraction, and a point on a number line
- Find matching fractions using numbers and pictures
- Make equivalent fractions using different numbers
- Compare fractions using numbers and patterns
Check Out These Other New Simuations:
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