The Intersection of STEM Research and STEM Outreach Education
at the University of Colorado Boulder
An article by Nancy Kellogg, PhD
ARCS CU Boulder Liaison and Alum (1966, 1980)
The University of Colorado Boulder campus is a treasure trove of many intersections between STEM research and pre K-12 STEM education. This article focuses on PhET, one of the many programs at the Boulder campus. PhET (original name Physics Education Technology) is now called PhET Interactive Simulations. PhET is a non-profit, open educational resource project that creates and hosts explorable explanations via simulations to improve the way science is taught and learned. Their stated mission is "To advance science and math literacy and education worldwide through free interactive simulations." It is critical to get all preK-12 students excited and curious about STEM in our world. Some of these students will go on to major in STEM fields in higher education.
PhET originated in 2002 with Dr. Carl Wieman, a former CU Boulder physics professor and one of five Nobel Laureates from the university. Dr. Wieman, with his CU Nobel Laureate colleague Dr. Eric Cornell, were the ARCS Colorado honorees in 2002-2003. PhET is based upon learning research in his CU undergraduate physics classes, starting with an electrical circuits simulation.
Even though Dr. Wieman is currently a Stanford professor, he is actively engaged with PhET as a senior advisor and research collaborator. Dr. Wieman started PhET with his Nobel prize winnings to advance STEM education and recently donated his three million dollar Yidan Prize money to PhET to continue their work developing more simulations in all science and some mathematics content areas for all age groups. Dr. Wieman’s long-term commitment to PhET enhances STEM education for K-12 students at a global level. The program has a free large library of over 100 highly engaging interactive simulations. Content, technology, and learning research experts, in collaboration with middle and high school teachers, develop the simulations. Dr. Kathy Perkins, director, leads the team. Some examples of simulation titles are: Circuit Construction Kit; Projectile Motion; Greenhouse Effect; Algebraic Thinking; Number Sense; Build an Atom; and Natural Selection. Current work by the PhET team will make the simulations more accessible for students with disabilities. The simulations are used in K-12 grades in more than 200 countries and territories with translations into 90 languages. PhET is also working with commercial partners such as BrainPOP to integrate simulations into more teaching products. PhET simulations are best coupled with inquiry-based hands-on experiences. Teachers are actively involved across the globe and share experiences via Twitter. During the COVID-19 pandemic, usage of the simulations has exploded averaging 20-25 million per month. Major PhET strengths include flexible use, student curiosity and engagement, inquiry-based guidance, instant feedback, and easy access for teachers and parents. The program has won numerous awards. I want to thank Dr. Ariel Paul, PhET team member, for providing this important story.
Please share information about the PhET free resources with family and friends. To learn more, go to their website: PhET.colorado.edu