More of What Works, from NDLA

Published: 27.11.2013, Updated: 05.03.2017

Research shows that we learn better when we work with interactive simulations, and NDLA now provides Norwegian pupils and students with significantly better access to simulations of high professional quality.

PhET-teamet (2012)The PhET-team (2012) 

The PhET project at the University of Colorado has created interactive simulations for use in learning activities since 2002. The simulations from PhET are characterized by very high professional quality and cover the subjects physics, biology, chemistry, earth sciences and mathematics. The project is run as a non-profit foundation, and all simulations are delivered as open learning resources with free licenses. In practice this means that they are free and can be used freely.

Freedom to Experiment

Creating high quality interactive simulations is resource demanding, and requires far more than just good programming skills. In order to produce a credible and usable simulation, good professional knowledge of what is to be simulated is required, and a mathematical description of the phenomenon is needed. This is something that characterizes the simulations from PhET, unlike many other well-intentioned attempts to illustrate a complex problem.

The PhET simulations have a simple and easy to use interface, and behind what is visible is a good mathematical model that describes the specific phenomenon correctly. It allows you as a user the freedom to experiment.

Rather than just pressing one button and observing a given outcome, you can assemble and manipulate your experiment in many different ways. Two identical experiments are not easy to carry out, just as in the real world.

The depth and complexity of the PhET simulations make them fun and inspiring to work with, and this will enable you to work with the same simulation for a longer duration without get bored.

(The article continues below the simulation.)


Why Simulations?

One might think that the use of simulations is just a cheap substitute for working in a real laboratory or proper field work, and that simulations are only an ulterior motive for using computers in teaching. This is not the case.

In some cases the "real" lab work or field work is best, for example, where the learner is to acquire specific skills related to this work. But for the scientific understanding of the phenomenon under study, a simulation is often better than the "real thing".

Simulations give the learner the freedom to experiment without putting themselves or the environment at risk. All crazy ideas may be tested. The consequence will be, at worst, that the simulation must be restarted.

In many cases, neither laboratory work nor field work are sufficient, for example, when it is not possible to test the phenomenon to be studied, or when the changes are taking place on such a large scale that they are difficult to observe. Examples include studies of glaciers or the effects of greenhouse gases.

When you learn something new and complicated, you often use analogies. The simulations from PhET provide visual representations of phenomena, and are therefore a very good support when searching for analogies.

New Technology

Up until now, simulations from PhET have been made ​​in the Java programming language. This is a language that is well suited for making simulations, and it works on many different operating systems.

But times are changing, and now we have new types of computers that did not exist when the PhET project started. Today we have tablets and smartphones, and we expect the simulations to work here too, Java and Flash simulations often do not.

PhET has acknowledged this, and has started converting the simulations to the HTML5 standard. For you as a user, this means that you can rely on simulations from PhET to work on virtually any digital device and they will continue to operate for the foreseeable future. NDLA contributes funds to PhET to support this important work.

Einar BergEinar Berg, NDLA 

In Norwegian

An important prerequisite for the simulations to be used in primary and secondary schools is that they are available in Norwegian. In some cases it may be a good idea to have the simulation in English, for example, in an interdisciplinary program where the learners have to practice their English vocabulary, but often we do not want language barriers to interfere with the professional work.

The mission for NDLA is to provide excellent digital learning materials in Norwegian, and therefore NDLA employees Einar Berg and Rune Mathisen have invested a lot of effort in translating the entire PhET website and most of the simulations to Bokmål. They are also in the process of translating into Nynorsk, and expect that this work will be completed before the summer of 2014.


Rune MathisenRune Mathisen, NDLA  

Simulations and Assignments

Many of the PhET simulations are fun to work with by themselves, but to get the full learning effect from them they should be accompanied by assignments that have clear learning objectives. The PhET website contains many tasks and assignments that have been created by teachers worldwide.

It is an important priority for NDLA to make good assignments that are relevant for the Norwegian curricula. Later this winter you will find additional tasks and assignments on the NDLA.no website that relate directly to simulations from PhET. Who said that school assignments are boring?

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