Designing PhET Activities for the K12 Classroom
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Designing PhET Activities for the K12 Classroom

FOR THE K-12 CLASSROOM Narrator: PhET provides science and math teachers over 125 free, research-based, interactive simulations, covering topics in physics, biology, chemistry, earth science and math. Teachers from elementary school through college are using them to help their students learn science. Courtney Fadley:
I’ve found that using a simulation is such a great way to capture their attention, even before they understand what the simulation is about. Christine Denison:
My students absolutely love using PhET. They’re able to look at something on a sim, to wonder about it, to try it out, and then they begin to make connections on their own. Trish Loeblein: I like to use the sims with the way they’re optimized – for student engagement and for student inquiry. Narrator: In this video, we will share our favorite strategies for writing effective activity worksheets for the K12 classrooms – activity worksheets that engage students in learning from the simulations and give teachers opportunities to have rich science discussions with their students. Kathy Perkins:
PhET simulations are designed to be these really flexible tools that teachers can integrate into their classroom in a variety of ways. Jeff Caulfield: I’ve used PhET simulations in a lot of different ways in the classroom. As a demonstration when I’m lecturing, a lab-type situation… Courtney Fadley:
Students and partners on computers, one-on-one, or do an entire class activity. Narrator: There are many different activity styles that will work well with PhET, because the simulations are so flexible. Regardless of your approach, however, the activity itself has a big impact on how students interact with and learn from the simulation. Kathy Perkins: So over the years we’ve been conducting a lot of research and doing a lot of classroom observations and out of that has come some effective strategies that we can share with teachers to help them create rich lessons for students learning science. Ariel Paul: The focus of the simulation is on trying to understand the concepts, the ideas, the cause-and-effect relationships that come together in the simulation. Activities that complement that tool tend to also be a fairly open activity with minimal wording, where the focus of the activity is on the exploration of the simulation not just on, for instance, filling out a worksheet. Narrator: While the activity itself can take up a whole class period, the activity worksheet is fairly short. Noah Podolefsky: Two pages front and back, with fairly open-ended questions and tables. Narrator: The PhET website has a variety of grade-appropriate activities written by our team and by teachers using PhET in their classrooms. Activities with a gold star are those which best fit our guidelines for inquiry-based activities. However, sometimes you need to write or modify an activity to suit your needs. ACTIVITY DESIGN GUIDELINES
Let’s look at some strategies for writing effective activities that have emerged from our team’s research, and observations of actual classroom use. 1. IDENTIFY YOUR STANDARDS AND OBJECTIVES
Narrator: The first step is to identify the national or state standards that you want to teach and a simulation that can help teach that standard. Courtney Fadley:
The PhET simulations specifically are so adaptable that I’ve taken ones that are designed for high school or even designed for college, and you can scale back the pieces of the simulation that you want to use in your classroom. Kathy Perkins:
It’s really useful when teachers can design lessons that address both content and non-content goals and we’ve tried to design PhET simulations to support having students ask questions or gather evidence or develop models or discuss the role of a model. Courtney Fadley: What usually works best is looking at the sim and playing with the sim yourself as a teacher and figuring out what you can do and what your students would do and writing a learning objective based on those things. Narrator: Each simulation can address many learning objectives. We find that choosing 2-3 objectives results in an activity that is not overly long and complex. Some instructors show the learning goals to the class before the activity. [Christine Denison:
The first thing we’re going to do is go over our learning goals for today. So, our first learning goal –
I should see everyone…] Narrator: But in high school, some teachers find it generates more productive student inquiry to list the learning goals on the worksheet, or refer to them during the activity. Trish Loeblein: When I’m thinking about the learning objectives that I want to use with the sim, the sim should enable the students to construct their own learning. So I go straight to more of the design and reasoning objectives. An example would be with density. The students probably already know what density is, but maybe not how to measure it. So, I can say design an experiment to measure several densities of different objects. Christine Denison:
One of the things that I like about the PhET simulations is I can really tailor my activities to make sure that my students are meeting a particular learning goal. But because the simulations are set up in a way that they are so interactive, they are so responsive, it’s really natural for my students to go beyond those learning goals that I have set for them. [Student: Put a hand! Put a hand!] 2. MAKE USE OF THE SIM FEATURES Narrator: Simulations provide a unique learning environment that’s highly interactive and allows students to explore in a way that’s not possible in the real world. Activities can take advantage of these features to really engage students in learning about science. Christine Denison: They’re able to look at something on a sim, to wonder about it, to try it out, and then they begin to make connections on their own, based on their observations and interaction with the sim. Ariel Paul: In a sim like Gravity and Orbits, a useful challenge prompt for instance could be, “What is a way that you could make the Earth go around the Sun in the shortest amount of time”, getting students to explore the various factors of the mass of the Sun, the mass of the Earth, and those are unique features to a sim. In a classroom experiment, you can’t change the mass of the Earth, you can’t change the mass of the Sun. 3. KEEP THE WORKSHEET SHORT
Narrator: Simulation-based activities can generate a lot of rich discussions. Using a short activity worksheet, around 1-2 pages, can give you the space to take advantage of these teaching moments, and reach your learning goals without over-structuring your class time. Noah Podolefsky: It’s important for the activity to be short and fairly open and flexible so that the teacher can adapt to what the students are doing and saying and change the way that the students are learning on the fly. Christine Denison:
If you have your activity planned down so that you don’t allow for any of that discussion time, you most likely will feel really rushed, because your students will generate so many really rich and interesting ideas, and you’ll want to have that time built into your lesson to really explore those and have those in-class discussions. Narrator: Note that in high-school, teachers may check in with individual groups throughout the activity, rather than having a whole class discussion. In this case, it’s still important to keep the worksheet short, as this lets students focus on inquiry and exploration, without getting into performance-mode. In addition, we recommend using short, written prompts that are easy for students to understand. Ariel Paul: We found that if the activity is too wordy, it tends to put the focus on the activity and we want a balance between the students working on the activity and exploring the simulation. So, minimal wording can focus on the key concepts of the sim. 4. BEGIN WITH OPEN PLAY Narrator: Starting activities with about five minutes of open play can be very helpful in order to get students engaged. During open play, students explore the simulation without instruction. This gives students the chance to explore the features of the simulation and to begin asking their own questions. [Courtney Fadley:
You guys have five minutes to do whatever you can figure out to do on the simulation.] Ariel Paul: the simulations are designed to be intuitive and inviting to begin with. So students naturally want to explore and play with them. Christine Denison: I noticed that when I gave the students time to play, we didn’t have the questions and the concerns that came up about how to navigate the sim as we were going through the activity later. [Christine Denison:
Try out as much as you want in five minutes, okay? You all may begin.] Courtney Fadley:
It really helps them get more focused later on, because they’ve already explored everything. Ariel Paul: The other big piece that that bit of open play buys you is a feeling of ownership of the students, that they are kind of taking control of their learning. [Christine Denison:
And so as you’re playing with the sim, please remember: you cannot hurt the sim.] Noah Podolefsky: It often helps to tell students that they can’t break anything, they can’t do anything wrong. Courtney Fadley: Part of them loving it is knowing that they’re always going to have this play time at the very beginning, every time that they use a simulation. 5. AVOID EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION Narrator: PhET Simulations are designed with an easy-to-use interface which allows students to learn through inquiry. Teachers find that students learn to pose and answer scientific questions when activities prompt them to use the simulation as a tool to gain that understanding. Direct instruction on how to use the simulation isn’t really needed. Kathy Perkins: When students see those explicit instructions, they really fall into a direction-following mode, and are less engaged with the simulation. It’s much more effective we found to pose challenging questions and that really encourages richer student discussion and interaction with the simulation. Laura Duncan: With really minimal guidance, they can kind of figure out on their own. “Oh look, we can make it hotter, we can add the fire here.” Trish Loeblein: I can say to them just design your own experiment, and I don’t tell them things like push the slider this way or push the slider that way because it turns into a cookbook experiment too easily. 6. USE OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS & CHALLENGES
Narrator: Open-ended questions give students opportunities to explore and to discuss their ideas. One strategy is to ask students to use the simulation to meet a particular challenge or to design an experiment. Ariel Paul: Challenge prompts can be an excellent way of giving minimal direction, but still giving a very guided goal to students. For instance, try to find all the ways that you can make the light bulb the brightest in our circuit construction sim. Christine Denison: On the Gravity and Orbit simulation we’re trying to have the planet have the fastest year possible. [Christine Denison:
Now, one person in the class got it down to 104 days. So, see if you can give your Earth a year that quick.] Courtney Fadley: They have some goal that they’re trying to meet and the sense of being a challenge where they have to accomplish something, but they have to learn something along the way. 7. SCAFFOLD INSTRUCTION WITH CONCEPT TABLES
Narrator: Tables can provide a useful structure for students as they work through the activity. Unlike a data table, these conceptually-based tables ask questions of the students to help guide them in their interactions with the simulation. Christine Denison: When I’m thinking about designing an activity, one of the things that’s really helpful is thinking of the activity as a place for students to record their observations and their data. I use lots of tables where students can draw pictures or make their own notes. Ariel Paul:
It can help organize some of their ideas, give them a place to record their observations and still allow them to feel like they are in a mode of productive exploration. Kathy Perkins:
One table that worked really well was in the Gravity and Orbit simulation. Students were given the challenge to find all the ways to change the force on the planets. And then they were given a table that guided them to basically list their action and then say whether that action increased or decreased the force on the planets. Ariel Paul:
In Build an Atom, if I add a proton, how does that change the charge? Increase, decrease, stayed the same. Tables that are well organized allow teachers to quickly see if their students are getting the concepts. 8. CHUNK THE ACTIVITY
Narrator: Some teachers break an activity into parts, with class discussions or check-ins at the end of each section. Christine Denison:
It’s really helpful, as you’re going through an activity, not to think of it as just this one long activity that really has no obvious breaks in it, but to think about the activity having various sections that are chunked by idea or topic and really putting your checks for understanding and your times for discussion within those various sections. [Christine Denison:
What do you think is going to happen to that gravity force?] Laura Duncan: I try to have the summing up question at the end where I can check and see okay, did they get the general idea or what do I need to work on some more. 9. REVIEW Narrator: At the end of the lesson, you may wish to have students reflect on what they have learned, and complete a post-activity assessment. Christine Denison:
Something that’s really beneficial to do at the end of class is revisit the learning goals from the beginning of class. How do we feel about that? Did we do a good job with that? And in doing this, students were able to really assess their own mastery and develop a sense of confidence about everything that they have accomplished throughout the entire class period. Narrator: If you’d like more information about writing activity worksheets using the PhET simulations, and to share your own activities, please visit our website. Courtney Fadley:
You’re getting to enjoy watching students interacting with each other and with the simulation, going ‘This is awesome!’ or ‘I love this!’ or ‘I could just see how to do this!’ which is so rewarding as a teacher, that’s why we do it, is to see these discoveries happening as the kids are going through and learning something. [Student: Are ohms like friction? Is that what…] [Trish Loeblein: Oh! You’re a winner girl!] [Student: Score! Yes!] PhET is free at
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