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PhET: Research and Development

PhET: Research and Development

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT Kathy Perkins: PhET is a collection of over 100 interactive simulations for teaching and learning science. We have simulations in physics, chemistry, biology, earth science and math. Michael Dubson: PhET was the brain-child of professor Carl Weiman. He realized early on that you first have to have good tools to be able to hand to good teachers, and he came to me and said, “Mike, uh, I’ve got an idea for a suite of software tools, so let’s go do it!” Kathy Perkins: It’s research based, so it’s drawing from the research literature and in addition conducting its own research to make effective simulations. It brings together different types of expertise: programming expertise, content expertise, teaching expertise, and education research expertise. One of our main goals is to educate the world, so we give all of our simulations for free and we provide tools for translators across the world to translate the simulations. WHAT KINDS OF IDEAS GUIDE
THE DESIGN OF PHET SIMULATIONS? SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY Kathy Perkins: One of the main goals of PhET is to provide students with an open exploratory environment where they can really engage with the science like a scientist. And through that exploration discover cause and effect relationships. INTERACTIVE Michael Dubson: There is no clearer way to learn about the behavior of the system than interacting with it and watching how it behaves when you adjust some control. That instant feedback is essential in order to make the connection between that control and the world. REAL WORLD CONNECTION Kathy Perkins: An overall goal for the PhET project is to help students see how science connects to the world around them. Michael Dubson: We want it to be recognizable as something in their life, something they have seen. Like, if we’re doing a simulation about waves, we’d want to see a string or dripping water because it looks simple enough that maybe they think, “oh yeah, I think I can handle this.” EASE OF USE Noah Podelfsky: This might be kind of like the apple philosophy, which is “make things as simple as possible so that you don’t need instructions.” You just sit down and know how to use it. Michael Dubson: The appearance of the sim has to be inviting, can’t be intimidating. So we don’t want it too cluttered. We don’t want too many controls. VISUAL MENTAL MODELS Kathy Perkins: Experts often carry around these visual mental models of how a system works. We often use those same visual tools and we display them to help students think like experts, so when you make a change, what’s the result of that change. MULTIPLE REPRESENTATIONS Noah Podolefsky: There are a number of things that students see when they sit down in front of a simulation. We try to use multiple representations; objects like bicycle pumps, graphs and pictures of things like molecules and the reason for that is there are many representations that are very formal, scientific, like formulas or graphs and those don’t always make sense to students intuitively right away. IMPLICIT GUIDANCE Michael Dubson: One of our design philosophies is that we try not to overly guide the student. We call it “implicit guidance” or “productive constraints.” Give the user just enough freedom to go down a particular path of inquiry. If you give them too many controls, they might go off on a path of unproductive inquiry where they just can’t figure out what this thing is doing, and the student can get lost. FLEXIBILITY Noah Podolefsky: Another one of our goals is to have a learning tool that is very flexible, So we’d like the simulations to be useable on lecture, we’d like them to be useable on homework, in labs, in all kinds of different situations. PLAYFUL Michael Dubson: The other thing I try to do on all PhET sims is make them a little playful, put something in there somewhere that’s a little tiny bit of humor, or something that doesn’t look like a standard textbook. John Blanco: You know we walk that fine line between making it exciting and interesting, but not so much so that they are just blowing things up and not learning. WHO WORKS ON PHET? Kathy Perkins: We have experts in software development, education and education research. In addition, we always integrate high school teachers or middle school teachers who are using the simulations with their students. John Blanco: There’s this really good give and take of taking the developer’s experience in creating software and simulations and user interfaces, and the experts’ experience in biology, chemistry, and uniting that all together into something that’s coherent and hopefully engaging and educational. HOW DO YOU PICK WHICH SIMULATIONS TO MAKE? Michael Dubson: When we are trying to think up a new simulation, the first thought is, “Is this suitable for a PhET sim?” “Does it lend itself to a visual highly interactive environment?” Kathy Perkins: We really look for areas where the simulations can be powerful . Areas where there are dynamic processes, or where there are things that are hidden from the students. Michael Dubson: You want a sim which produces an exciting, informative visual but also a visual which has a high degree of interactivity where the user can grab a control and instantly see the reaction of the physical system. You want the student to be leaning forward at the computer and not leaning back just watching. WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH GUIDES
THE SIMULATION DEVELOPMENT? Stamatis Vokos: There is a whole careful research trajectory and research enterprise that funds, intellectually, the development of the simulations. Kathy Perkins: We draw from research across different areas and in addition we conduct our own research so that we’re constantly learning about what makes an effective simulation. INTERFACE DESIGN Kathy Perkins: We draw from research on computer interface design; for instance, it helps when a control is next to the thing that it’s controlling. STUDENT DIFFICULTIES Kathy Perkins: Another area of research that we draw on is student difficulties. There are research groups that are studying student difficulties in physics, chemistry, biology and we look through that literature to see what student difficulties are around a particular content area. COGNITIVE SCIENCE Kathy Perkins: The third area of research we draw from is broadly the research on how people learn. For instance cognitive overload. When we think about cognitive overload, we want to make sure that the simulations are manageable for the students. If the simulations starts up with a lot of things going on, for instance a lot of motion on the screen already occurring, then students hesitate to interact, they sit back and they just want to watch. Michael Dubson: Now one way to fix that is to give the user a sort of graded complexity level, where you have an introductory tab that’s stripped down to the bare minimum features of the sim. And once they mastered the first tab they can move on to the second tab which has more sophisticated controls, more sophisticated behavior. WHAT IS THE LIFE-CYCLE OF A SIMULATION? Kathy Perkins: The entire design process for a simulation typically takes two to eight months. 1. LEARNING GOALS Kathy Perkins: The design process starts with identifying the learning goals that we’re trying to address with the simulation. So there we really take input from the teachers, and the student difficulties that we find in the research. John Blanco: They have a concept that their students are having a hard time getting, and they think a simulation would be a good thing. So we help them to narrow the scope, what is the essence of the message that you want to get across to the students, what’s the concept that they’re having a really hard time getting. Trish Loeblein: If we aren’t careful it’s really easy to say we’re going to write a sim about titration, and then there are so many topics nobody’s happy. So I help narrow down the learning goals. 2. STORYBOARDING Kathy Perkins: Then from learning goals we go on to storyboarding the simulations. John Blanco: We start using things like Illustrator and sometimes just pieces of paper to draw up things that would make it as much like a simulation as possible without doing the actual development. Kathy Perkins: So we decide what controls we want to have to allow students to vary, we decide on the context in which we’re going to design the simulation. Noah Podolefsky: So, there is a simulation that I am right in the middle of designing that’s about light refraction, and in textbooks usually they just draw a beam of light, and then you have an interface, and then they show what the beam of light is going to do on the other side. Light isn’t just a beam, it’s actually a wave, and so we’ve been going back and forth through all these e-mails discussing what should the wave representation look like, how wide should the wave be, should the wave propagate away from the laser since the speed of light has a finite speed, or should it just instantly appear because that might be easier for students to figure out? 3. BUILDING AND TESTING Kathy Perkins: Then after we storyboard the simulation, then the program developer starts programming it up. Kelly Lancaster: It’s kind of a process, so we will see an initial version of a sim, we’ll discuss it in the team, we’ll make changes, the developer will go back and program those, so we can get a lot of the kinks out before the students interviews. 4. STUDENT INTERVIEWS Kathy Perkins: So after we’re happy with how sim is working on computer, then we go on to the student interviews. When we bring students into the interview we have them interact with simulations in a very open exploratory way. Noah Podolefsky: I usually just say, “go ahead and play around and tell me what you’re seeing.” If a simulation is working in terms of the interface and usability, they usually figure out what it is that they want to do. Kelly Lancaster: I can tell students are engaged when they are really trying to figure out what’s going on versus just reporting what they see in the sim. John Blanco: A lot of times students will do things that we never expected. And as soon as they do, we learn something from that and we say “okay, maybe we need to change this so that students don’t get confused by it.” Kelly Lancaster: But if we see after a couple interviews that something needs to be changed, we’ll change it and do interviews with the changes. Kathy Perkins: When we can, we also like to get classroom testing, and get some feedback from actual classroom use. That can drive additional changes to the simulation. 5. FINAL DEPLOYMENT Kathy Perkins: We wrap up the simulation development process by creating some tips for teachers, creating an activity around the simulation, and putting it up on the web and posting learning goals and the main topics. John Blanco: We’ve made all the simulations so that they are pretty easy to translate, and in November last year, I published a simulation and within a month, there were 20 different languages that the simulation was now running in and I just find that really exciting because it means that not only is it being used around the United States, it’s being used all over the world. Noah Podolefsky: We have a team of really excellent creative individuals, all of which are completely dedicated to this project and making everything as good as it can be. And really strive for a level of excellence that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Michael Dubson: Our motives are pure. We are not in it to make money. We give everything away, so we don’t regard it as a profit making venture. It’s an educational venture, and that’s our job. English subtitles: Stephanie Chasteen Subtitles by the community

2 comments on “PhET: Research and Development

  1. These are amazing. It's like mathblaster on steroids. This is the kind of thing that will make students into monster physicists. It's like Einsteins thought experiments come to life.

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