Website review by Pamela Brittain, Common Sense Education | Updated November 2020

PhET Interactive Simulations

Massive collection of excellent (and free!) science and math simulations

Learning rating
Community rating
Based on 8 reviews
Privacy rating
22%| Warning Expert evaluation by Common Sense
Grades
3–12
Subjects & Skills
Math, Science, Critical Thinking

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1 video | 9 images

Pros: Variety of topics and target ages, and a ton of support materials.

Cons: Not as compelling as real-world simulations; design is somewhat dated; requires teacher input and direction (not really student self-guided).

Bottom Line: Instantly add meaningful lab experiences to math and science classrooms for exactly $0? It's tough to beat that.

There's no shortage of ways to use PhET Interactive Simulations in (or out of) the classroom. Effectively, any time you'd use a static PowerPoint slide or textbook image to demonstrate a concept, it's worth checking PhET to see if there's an interactive version. Chances are high that there's already one on the site. There are also virtual versions of common lab experiences, and it might be worth using the simulation if you're short on class time or resources, or if you're doing distance learning. Even if you have really great videos of experiments, the interactivity of these simulations will contribute so much to your lessons that it's hard not to use both.

Especially for science teachers struggling with 45-minute class times, PhET can be a great way for students to experience labs at home. There are hundreds of complete lesson plans and resources available on the site (with a free account) that use the site's simulations. The simulations work in a browser, or you can also download them for offline use. You can also use them as-is or, with a bit of know-how, remix them for your needs. Just be sure to share your modifications with the rest of the community! Keep in mind, though, that many of these simulations are not designed for students to lead themselves in the learning; they require teacher input and direction, including what the various functions of many of the sims are for and how they work. 

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With over 150 different simulations available, PhET Interactive Simulations is a large collection of virtual experiments, demonstrations, and visualizations for dozens of math and science topics (from kindergarten through graduate school). Each tool allows students to control a variety of parameters for each concept, tinkering and exploring and probing relationships all from the safety and comfort of a computer. The results are displayed in real time, often with relevant data to make the outcomes even more clear. All simulations are rendered in HTML5, Flash, or Java, and updates have been made so that they all work in modern browsers. There's also a paid app available (for iOS and Android) that includes a collection of about 80 HTML5 simulations.

Every simulation is accompanied by a large cache of teacher- and expert-created classroom resources, including lab guides, homework, and assessments; you just have to create a free account to access them. Furthermore, all tools, and many teacher resources, are available in dozens of languages. Some of the simulations have even been made with various accessibility issues in mind, and many of the simulations allow students with accessibility issues to participate more fully than they might be able to with real-world models.

PhET Interactive Simulations is an excellent, free tool to help support student learning. Lab experiments and demonstrations have been a staple of math and science since the dawn of time for a very good reason: They promote lasting retention of otherwise difficult-to-understand concepts. Research into learning and cognition has also shown that when learners actively control, tinker with, and push the boundaries of live experiences, the learning is even deeper and more meaningful. In that way, PhET is an exceptional tool for learning. These simulations can illuminate some of the very toughest topics in math and science in ways that paragraphs of text, equations, textbook pictures, and even videos of demonstrations just can't touch. 

In addition to some dated designs that can distract from otherwise excellent simulations, some of the tools are a bit too closed-ended and could benefit from additional controls. In addition, some of the simulations are incredibly simple and would serve only as a quick demonstration of the concept, not an in-depth discovery. These both may be due to limitations of the technology when the tools were designed, so as tools are updated to modern standards, this could change. 

Overall Rating

Engagement

Every simulation is carefully created to represent a real-world experience, with easy-to-use controls and clear inputs and outputs. The design is pretty dated, but the learning engagement potential is still very real.

Pedagogy

Experimentation and tinkering are some of the best ways to form meaningful and lasting cognitive constructs, and these simulations cover a huge range of phenomena for each discipline. 

Support

Dozens of lessons translated into dozens of languages accompany every interactive tool, and there's loads of training and resources available for teachers (accessible with a free account).


Common Sense reviewer
Pamela Brittain Researcher

Community Rating

(See all 8 reviews) (8 reviews) Write a review
Featured review by
Tony D. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
UWCSEA
Singapore, Singapore
If you are looking for some hands-on online activities/simulation, this is the place to stop.
I like this site and some of the activities/simulation in there, but they have to be linked with your curriculum and maybe an activity prepared by you. Students have the option to explore and invent their own circuits with different components, and that´s great for creativity and also to put knowledge in practice, as if the circuit is not built properly, it won´t work thus also good for problem solving. You can use it for a lesson or for students to practice circuits at home (in case you don´t have tho ...
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