Exploring the World through Interactive Simulations

For many of us, teaching math and science are relatively new endeavors. We came to adult education as generalists with no particular background in math or science, but now that there are new college and career readiness standards in adult education and a new HSE assessment in New York State, I think we’ve all realized that there is a need for us to teach some basic content in chemistry, biology, earth science and physics. I don’t know about you, but that proposition is pretty intimidating for me. In a few months, I will be using a curriculum focused on matter and energy (a topic covered by the TASC), and I want to make sure that my students can engage with the material on multiple levels, especially since the basic understandings are relatively new to me. Frankly, I don’t want to have all of that responsibility.

Luckily, there are a number of new Internet tools that will help me bring real-world explorations into the classroom without a need for lab equipment and materials that aren’t practical in adult education. PhET Interactive Simulations provides some of the tools that I will be using. PhET has over 100 simulations in math, chemistry, biology, earth science and physics. According to PhET, their simulations “allow homework assignments to use a guided inquiry approach where students engage in scientist-like exploration.” I see these simulations as a way to bring textbook explanations to life.

So, for example, after a basic explanation of the different states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) and how these states relate to temperature, I plan to show the class the PhET simulation, States of Matter. This simulation will let us look at the visual difference between atoms in a solid, liquid or gaseous state and think about what temperature might have to do with this. I might start with water in a liquid state and ask the class what they think would happen if I add heat. We will able to watch water change into a gaseous state as the heat agitates the water molecules and changes their state.

PhET States of Matter

Then, if possible, I plan to have my students work in pairs to use the simulation to explore the three states of matter and the four substances (neon, argon, oxygen and water). There are a number of useful questions that might come out of this activity: Why are the atoms moving even in a solid state? What is the visual difference between a liquid state and a gaseous state? Why is the boiling temperature and melting temperature different for each substance?

One small disappointment for me is that the temperature in this simulation is in Kelvin, which I guess is appropriate for scientific applications, but I wish I had the ability to change it to Fahrenheit and Celsius to make connections to how these scales work mathematically for the states of water. Also, when adding cold to the bucket, it would be much easier to make guesses about when water will become solid if we were familiar with the temperature scale. Oh well.

A nice thing about the PhET simulations are the lesson plans uploaded to each simulation page by teachers and professors who use the site (you can upload your own simulation lesson plans as well, if you’re so moved). For example, a professor at Hunter College wrote a lesson plan exploration using the States of Matter simulation that, among other things, asks students to sketch different states of matter based on what they see in the simulation. At the end of the lesson, students are asked to consider the following question: “If you took an empty balloon and weighed it, then took that same balloon and filled it with air would you expect the weight of the balloon to change?” Great question, right?

There are tons of different simulations on this site. A short list of those related to chemistry, the subject I will be teaching in May, includes building an atom, building a molecule, balancing chemical equations, balloons and static electricity, and a bunch of others that may be too advanced for our classes. There are also great simulations in other topics in science, such as natural selection and plate tectonics, as well as math simulations for building fractions and exploring area.

The simulations of electricity may be particularly interesting to teachers doing career training or using integrated curriculum. Useful simulations include John Travoltage (about static electricity discharge from a carpet to a doorknob), a basic circuit, and an AC/DC Circuit construction kit with the ability to construct a circuit using batteries, switches, resistors, capacitors, etc.

If you’re interested in using simulations in your classroom, a good place to start may be PhET’s video for teachers, to hear the experiences of professors and students using PhET. If you use PhET in your class, please reply below and let us know how it went.

A couple notes:

I know for many teachers, having access to a computer lab or a project can be difficult. If you are able to demonstrate the simulation in class, I wonder if it might be possible to ask students to access the simulations outside of class. I would love to hear in the comments if you have creative solutions for a one computer classroom or ways to use the technology that students bring. For example, many PhET simulations will work with tablets.

Some of the simulations work in a browser or on a tablet in HTML5, which means that you should be able to run the simulation without having to install any software. For other simulations, you will need to install the simulation software and have an updated version of Flash and Java.

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About Eric Appleton

Eric lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn with his wife Nancy and a poodle mix named Nina. He rides a bike to clear his head, but also enjoys long subway rides scribbling numbers in a notebook. Eric has worked in adult ed since '99. He is a founding member of the NYC Community of Adult Math Instructors (CAMI).

8 thoughts on “Exploring the World through Interactive Simulations

  1. We need more articles like this one to work with students. Simulation allow for real-world, open ended questioning that students need to be more thoughtful thinkers. As we look to connect to common core skills for adults, these is the type of approach we need.

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  2. I really like the simulation called “Balancing Act” – https://phet.colorado.edu/sims/html/balancing-act/latest/balancing-act_en.html. It deals with both science and mathematics, allowing students (and teachers) to explore levers, force and some serious proportional reasoning. My favorite thing about the Balancing Act is the way it develops concepts in physical science, but also develops scientific thinking. You could just tell students the formula, but this simulation allows the activity to be more inquiry based and more meaningful for students.

    The simulation lets you experiment with a see saw and items of different weights and develop your own understanding of where to position items on the see saw to create balance/equilibrium.

    Students can play around with different weights and come up with a lot, but I’d recommend using some of the questions in the Teaching Ideas section, particularly the one called Balancing Act Inquiry. It is a hand out for students that guides them without giving away too much.

    After they feel like they have some hypotheses about the way it all works, they can play the game. The game gives students a chance to test their hypotheses by asking them to do things like: (1) predict what will happen given an arrangement of weights on the see saw, (2) find a way to balance a beam – for example, if one side has two 40 kg boulders in particular positions, where could you position one 40 kg boulder on the other side to achieve equilibrium, and (3) guess the mass of an object by balancing it with a weight on the other side.

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  3. This is a good resource for those who cannot otherwise get lab experiences. I hope to use some of these demos in my classes as I introduce more physical science concepts. At the same time, I find myself marveling at the many science lab experiences I have had, either performing trials with classmates or witnessing demos by others. It occurs to me that whether dull or not, these simulations can cumulatively help build understanding in a way that text or pictures alone cannot do. One of the best aspects is the ability to run the simulation any number of times and explore different relationships, especially when several sets of relationships are present. I viewed the demo of pressure, temperature, and volume changes interacting, but had to run it several times, each time focusing on a different relationship.

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  4. One issue with the older simulations on PhET is that they require downloading Java. This creates problems for those of us who can’t install software on our work computers. PhET is going through and rewriting the simulations so that they will all work in a browser without any additional software. You can see a list of all the updated simulations here:


    These simulations will run easily in a browser without installing any software. You might start with the Balancing Chemical Equations simulation. That’s a fun one!

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  5. I was fascinated that so many demos would be so easily available. I took all my lab experiences for granted until working in adult ed made it clear that it was unusual to have access to many hands-on activities. Where they are not available, Phet is providing the next best thing.

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  6. I would be curious to find out if the simulations would work on a smart phone. Not all students may have computers at home but many of them do have access to phones with internet access. Will have to test it out.

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  7. The PhET Interactive Simulations web site would be a useful internet tool for our teachers to use in bringing the concepts of evolution to life for our adult learners who have limited knowledge in science. I will share these resources with all of our teachers at my place or practice.

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  8. Very Cool! I love how this can show what’s happening at the molecular level. I am often at a loss when trying to describe what is going on at the molecular level during chemical reactions. Love that these animations highlight some very popular experiments that I can replicate in class and then use this sight to reinforce vocabulary, balancing chemical equations, etc. And the ability to interact is priceless.

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