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Build a Virtual Science Lab With PhET To Publications / Articles - Build a Virtual Science Lab With PhET

Posted 11/6/14
Andy Harris

Build a Virtual Science Lab With PhET

By Andy Harris

Math instruction and science instruction are important parts of any school curriculum. Some science topics cannot be taught easily without a laboratory, but there are some terrific resources online to help homeschooled families build their own surprisingly complete virtual science lab—entirely for free.

The University of Colorado at Boulder houses an incredible free resource of laboratory simulators that can enhance your curriculum tremendously. These tools can help make science come alive and equip you and your kids to perform science experiments safely without the expense of investing in a full laboratory. This month, we explore some of the many wonderful applications available on that site.

The PhET project (PhET once stood for “Physics Education Technology,” but they’ve branched into many other areas of science, so now the name is no longer an acronym for anything) is a series of powerful and interesting applications that let you experiment with various aspects of science. These applications were written from a university perspective, so they tend to be geared toward older age groups, but they are quite open-ended, and a number of these applications can be used by younger ages.

These are not really self-contained lessons but rather are laboratory environments. They were designed so that teachers and parents could write lab exercises and complete them by using these tools. Each of the applications has a number of user-created lab exercises associated with it. You can use these assignments or create your own. If open-ended exploration is more your style, you’ll have plenty to investigate.

The applications are written in browser-friendly technologies (Java, Flash, and Flex), so if you have a reasonably modern web browser, you will probably be able to run the applications with no problems. Unfortunately, they do not work on tablets or mobile devices. All of the apps can be downloaded so you can use them off-line if you have a slow connection. You can even order a CD-ROM or DVD containing all of the apps, making them available without an Internet connection at all.

The main PhET page can be found at phet.colorado.edu This page allows you to navigate the apps by topic or age level. You can run the simulations directly in your browser from this site: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulations/category/new.

There are dozens of simulations here, but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.


The site includes a number of tool benches that allow you to build and test circuits without setting the house on fire. Some of the toolsets also include virtual meters to help more advanced students study more advanced topics, such as voltage and amperage or the difference between DC and AC circuits. Other tools illustrate concepts in electricity in an easy-to-visualize way.

AC / DC Construction Kit: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/circuit-construction-kit-ac. A complete AC and DC simulator with capacitors inductors and graphical meters. Build your own circuit with switches and light bulbs.

Basic Circuit Construction Kit: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/circuit-construction-kit-dc-virtual-lab. A simpler lab suitable for late elementary and middle school experimentation.

John Travoltage: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/travoltage. A hilarious simulation of static electricity, featuring an online “puppet” of John Travolta. Move John’s feet on the carpet and see how static electricity builds up in his body; then touch his finger to the doorknob to see and hear a jolt. This is ideally used along with real-world exploration of static electricity, even for younger students.

Balloons and Static Electricity: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/balloons. After doing real-world experiments with balloons sticking to walls with static electricity, use this app to demonstrate the charges and to explain how static electricity works. Terrific for an elementary science class.


There are a couple of interesting apps that allow you to experiment with light and color. These can be appropriate for younger grades, although there are certainly physics concepts to understand with these apps as well.

Color Vision: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/color-vision. This app explores the additive color model used in computing (which is different than the subtractive color model used in traditional art). See how light of different frequencies combines to create new colors.

Bending Light: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/bending-light. Explore refraction and reflection. Some experiments are suitable for younger students, and more advanced students will be able to experiment with the refraction properties of various materials.

Geometric Optics: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/geometric-optics. Explore how various lenses bend light to enlarge, shrink, and reverse images.


The basic principles of chemistry can be difficult to understand, but these interactive tools make it much easier to visualize the relationships between subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules.

Build an Atom: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/build-an-atom. Given “bowls” full of neutrons, electrons, and protons, fit the particles into an atomic diagram. As you build an atom, you can see where it lies on the periodic table. Observe how various atoms are grouped on the periodic table, how isotopes are formed, and what makes an atom stable.

Build a Molecule: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/build-a-molecule. You are given a series of atoms, and you’re challenged to build a molecule, based on its chemical name. Really helps students see how atoms fit together to form common molecules.

Reactants, Products, and Leftovers: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/reactants-products-and-leftovers. Begin by making sandwiches, and discover how ingredients can be combined to make various sandwiches. Then see how this relates to chemical equations.

Balancing Chemical Equations: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/balancing-chemical-equations. Given a chemical equation, drag and drop parts of atoms to make the equation balance. Helps to visualize one of the most important concepts in chemistry.


Sound: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/sound. Place a speaker and a listener in a room and play sounds of various frequencies and amplitudes. Visualize the frequency and amplitude while listening (on headphones if you value your relationship with the rest of the family), and see how interference from multiple speakers alters the sound, as well as how sound bounces off of walls.

Fourier—Making waves: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/fourier. This app allows you to build complex waveforms by adding sine waves of various frequencies. You can build extremely complex waveforms and listen to them over a speaker. Includes a game that provides a complex waveform and challenges you to recreate it.


The library was generated by a physics department, so it’s not surprising that it has especially good physics applications.

Energy Skate Park: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/energy-skate-park. Draw a complicated curve on the screen, and watch a skater maneuver your virtual skate park. Great fun for younger kids, and it demonstrates gravity, momentum, and forces for older students.

The Ramp: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/the-ramp. Free–body diagrams are a staple of most physics classes. This interactive version allows you to set various parameters and then see if your calculations match the performance of the simulation.

Gravity and Orbits: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/gravity-and-orbits. Examine the solar system and see how gravitational forces affect orbits. Learn how orbits work, and modify the variables that affect the strength of gravitational attraction.

Lunar Lander: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/lunar-lander. One of the oldest computer games ever written, the basic problems of landing a spacecraft without air resistance is still fascinating. This realistic version is quite difficult but a lot of fun.

Projectile Motion: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/projectile-motion. Of course it wouldn’t be science if we didn’t shoot things out of cannons. This classic app allows you to fire various projectiles while changing the mass, angle, and initial velocity. Most of us will simply want to crash cars, but a physics student should be able to calculate the time and distance, based on initial parameters, and then check her work.


Mathematics is often seen as a dull field, but this is really not fair. There is a lot to explore in math, and these apps are pretty fun.

Arithmetic: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/arithmetic. This nice drill-and-practice tool helps you practice multiplication, division, and factoring skills while providing a visualization that helps you see the relationship between these operations.

Plinko Probability: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/plinko-probability. The game of Plinko is interesting because it demonstrates a number of principles of statistics, and it naturally tends to build a normal Gaussian curve. Students can learn about probability with this app and maybe get an advantage at the next carnival they attend.

Equation Grapher: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/equation-grapher. One of the most interesting things students learn in algebra is the visual representation of equations, yet students often struggle with graphing. This tool makes it easy for students to visualize various functions and gain a more intuitive feel for the relationship between functions and real-world phenomena.

I have highlighted only a small number of applications on this site. There are many more, including an app to experiment with vectors and acceleration (it’s irresistible—it’s got a game called the “arena of pain”) to programs that allow you to investigate quantum mechanics, torque, advanced chemistry, calculus, and more.

If you have a computer and an Internet connection, PhET gives you a science lab at home!

Andy Harris is a homeschool dad, father of four great kids, and husband to the greatest homeschool teacher ever. He has taught all ages of students, from kindergarten to university level. Andy is the author of a number of well-known books, including HTML/XHTML/CSS: All in One for Dummies, Game Programming—The Line, PHP6/MySQL Programming for the Absolute Beginner, and Beginning Flash Game Programming for Dummies. For more information about his books, to see where he is speaking next, or to just say hi, please stop by his website: www.aharrisbooks.net

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

118 October 2012 •