Being a teacher today is about more than just imparting knowledge and helping students pass tests. Teachers are equipping the next generation with a robust skillset to thrive in a rapidly changing world. As our 2020 laureate Professor Carl Wieman puts it, ‘the ultimate value of education is about learning to make better decisions.’ Students need to learn to apply knowledge to make good decisions in life, from making healthier choices for themselves to solving larger societal and environmental problems.
That’s why we are proud to support PhET Interactive Simulations. Founded in 2002 by Carl Wieman at University of Colorado Boulder, PhET creates free interactive math and science simulations that engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment. To date, PhET has delivered more than 1.1 billion simulations to teachers and students around the world. Backed by extensive research, the PhET team designed the simulations to help educators encourage active learning in students, fostering curiosity and scientific thinking skills.
Last December, we had the pleasure of hosting Dr Kathy Perkins, Dr Rebecca Vieyra, and Zachariah Mbasu from the PhET team, as well as avid users of PhET simulations here in Hong Kong.
We spoke with Hong Kong educators, Callie BushMiller, Ravi Lall, and Dr Manpreet Singh, about how they use PhET simulations in the classroom. And the PhET team highlighted the critical role of teachers in encouraging our next generation to think like scientists. Here’s what they told us.
- How did you first come across PhET simulations? What do your students like most about them?
Manpreet: In the absence of face-to-face teaching during COVID-19, I looked for substitutes for the physics experiments and demonstrations. At the time, I looked into different online simulation platforms, but it’s the teacher resources and sample activities that set the PhET website apart from others. In 2020, I began incorporating these simulations into my online classes. After receiving positive feedback from students, I started using them in my face-to-face courses and successfully merged them with the HKDSE Physics and Mathematics topics. Students find PhET’s simulations appealing because of their clarity and originality in presenting complex mathematical and physics concepts in a game-like format.
My students enjoy PhET’s user-friendly interface. Their favorites are Charges and Fields, Wave on a String, and Gas properties, as well as Bending of Light, Graphing Quadratics, and Trig Tour.
Callie: I was introduced to PhET simulations by a colleague at Fridley High School in 2005, as we were planning and implementing a Physics First program. I have been using them ever since in schools in the USA, Bahrain, and Hong Kong. The ease of access and use, interactive nature, and visual appeal make PhET simulations highly engaging for students. They enjoy having time to explore and play with the simulations before or after the specific tasks of a lesson.
Some of my students’ favorite simulations are Energy Skate Park, Color Vision, and Waves Intro.
Ravi: I have been using PhET simulations for a decade now. When I first started teaching calculus-based AP Physics, I found students needed help understanding and visualizing abstract concepts. PhET simulations allow students to change the experimental setup quickly and efficiently with a click of a button—it saves a lot of time, both for students and teachers, and gives students the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them in real-time.
I’ve found some of the most useful simulations for my students have been circuit simulation, electric field, and RC circuits.
- At the 2022 Yidan Prize Summit, you guided guests through a hands-on exploration of various PhET simulations. What were some of the most interesting questions you received?
Manpreet: The majority of visitors I spoke to were curious as to whether or not they had to purchase the package in order to access these simulations. I think most visitors were also quite surprised by the demonstrations because they weren’t aware this platform could be used for classroom instruction.
Callie: One question that caught my attention was: “Can students use these simulations to learn independently, or does the teacher have to give them access?” They were excited to learn that PhET simulations are freely available and can be accessed by students at any time. Teachers can provide lesson guidance, either by creating their own PhET-based activities or by using vetted activities provided by other teachers. I always tell students to simply go to https://phet.colorado.edu/, where they can explore simulations and learn on their own.
Ravi: Some visitors wanted to know whether there is any training available to learn how to use particular simulations and whether these simulations worked on all types of computers. They were pleased to hear that it does work even on smartphones. Some also wanted to know how to guide their children so that they could learn on their own using the simulations.
- What was your experience meeting some of the avid users of PhET simulations in Hong Kong?
Rebecca: It has been so energizing to connect with educators who use PhET simulations and hear their stories. We value the experiences they share and the feedback they provide, and we especially appreciate seeing their passion for teaching mathematics and science.
What inspired us the most is seeing how they are championing active learning in all contexts—whether that’s for the local curriculum or in international teaching structures like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP). Many of our users see PhET simulations as an entryway for them and their colleagues to encourage student creativity and exploration.
- Why is it so important to involve educators in discussions?
Zach: Teachers are experts at the intersection of their content areas and teaching methods. They understand the socio-cultural, technological, and other logistical factors that impact how students learn in their local community context. However, at a global level, a lot of the educational dialogue focuses more on policy or research. Teachers bring together the policy, research, and real-world teaching and learning experiences.
- What are the key challenges and opportunities in Hong Kong for STEM education? And how can PhET simulations help?
Kathy: One thing we heard from Hong Kong educators is that the local curriculum is packed with content and student test scores are a high priority. At the same time, educators are aware of the Hong Kong Bureau of Education’s 2016 Report on STEM Education, which identified that students have limited time in the curriculum to develop important competency-based aspects of a quality mathematics and science education: curiosity, scientific, and critical thinking skills, and a sense of ownership for learning.
In this context, it takes a skilled teacher and the right resources to make learning more efficient and encourage inquiry and curiosity in students. Our own research, and that of others around the globe, shows that PhET simulations used in an inquiry context are more effective for both teaching concepts and for improving students’ attitudes toward science.
Many Hong Kong teachers and learners are already using PhET simulations, which are available in English, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese, with over 476,000 online runs of the Chinese-translated versions of PhET simulations in 2022. However, we realize many teachers are still unaware of PhET simulations, so we’re eager to raise awareness.
- We’re proud to support the PhET Global Initiative through Professor Carl Wieman’s Yidan Prize project funds. Through PhET Global, the team is reaching more learners in Latin America and Africa. Do you have plans to expand PhET’s reach in Asia?
Rebecca: In 2022, we launched the PhET Fellowship to build regional networks of exemplary teacher leaders across Latin America and Africa.
In the future, we would love to establish a partnership to support a similar Fellowship across Asia and develop ‘micro’ Fellowships at the country level to better address the diversity of contexts across the region.
- What do you hope STEM education will look like in the next five or 10 years?
Kathy: We envision a world where all STEM learners are engaged and inspired, and all STEM teachers have access to and use high-quality tools and evidence-based teaching strategies to advance learners’ mathematics and science literacy. Doing so requires a significant investment from educational leaders to recognize the specialized knowledge and skills they must have to carry out their profession effectively. It also requires the support of government officials to provide particular discipline-specific professional growth opportunities that build community among STEM teachers, address their specific needs, and provide avenues for teachers to feed their wisdom and experience back into policymaking and research.
Try out some of the PhET simulations here.