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Online Project Receives $2.5 Million Grant To Aid Middle School Science

The PhET Interactive Simulations Project at the University of Colorado at Boulder has received grants totaling $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the O'Donnell Foundation to expand its reach to middle school science. The team of scientists, educators, and software engineers for the ongoing project design online simulations that demonstrate how scientific concepts apply in real-world scenarios. The simulations are then made available free of charge to all science classes and students that wish to use them to enhance the practical components of education.

A spokesperson for the project said the team plans to use the grant money to develop 35 new simulations specifically geared to middle school physical science education. The existing library of simulations targets concepts and applications generally used in high school- and college-level physics courses.

"Research shows that middle school is a critical stage for many students, where they either get excited by science or turned off," said Kathy Perkins, director of the PhET project. "We believe bringing PhET simulations to middle school will help make science classes both more effective and more fun."

Teachers who have used the PhET simulations have praised it for allowing students to visualize complex, and even invisible, phenomena. "Most young students do not have enough experience to visualize the process of physics happening, like I do in my mind's eye, after decades of study." said Trish Loeblein, a physics and chemistry teacher at Evergreen High School in Evergreen, CO. "The PhET simulations allow us to conduct experiments, with students at the helm, that we wouldn't otherwise be able to stage or model in the classroom."

Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman founded PhET at CU in 2002 to help students visually comprehend concepts by using simulations featuring vivid graphics and interactive tools for project implementation and quantitative analysis. The team thoroughly evaluates the effectiveness of each simulation in a variety of learning environments, including classroom lectures, collaborative lab work, and individual assignments. The simulations are written in Java and Flash programming languages for easy access from all major Internet browsers with the free downloadable software installed.

Wieman, currently a professor of physics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, Canada, was a distinguished professor at CU-Boulder when he won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for creating a new form of matter known as Bose-Einstein condensate. He frequently taught an undergraduate course at CU entitled founded "The Physics of Everyday Life," which introduced future scientists and non-scientists alike to the fundamentals of the discipline by making complex scientific concepts more easily accessible. Still committed to his ongoing efforts to improve STEM education at all levels, Wieman maintains his position as director of the CU Science Education Initiative, of which PhET is an integral part.

"We are so impressed with PhET's potential to transform how science is taught, and with what the project has accomplished at the high school and college level," said O'Donnell Foundation founder Peter O'Donnell, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a long-standing proponent of improving science education. "We think that bringing these learning tools to middle school students and teachers will improve math and science education in a measurable way."

Loeblein added that using the PhET simulations eliminates the substantial materials and equipment costs associated with in-school laboratory work, as well as the inherent risk. "Students also do not have to worry about breaking expensive lab equipment, so PhET facilitates a nonthreatening learning environment," she said. "The worst thing that can happen is to have to hit reset on the simulation."

For more information about the PhET Interactive Simulations Project, visit the project Web site. The project's complete library of simulations can be accessed here.

About the Author

Scott Aronowitz is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. He has covered the technology, advertising, and entertainment sectors for seven years. He can be reached here.