Five questions for Kathy Perkins

Director, PhET Interactive Simulations Project, CU-Boulder
Kathy Perkins

Kathy Perkins at the recent Tech Awards, where PhET received a $50,000 Microsoft Education Award.  Photo: © Charlotte Fiorito Photography, All Rights Reserved

Growing up in a household of scientists may have influenced Kathy Perkins’ decision to study physics, but her desire to make a difference in people’s lives in a more immediate way pushed her into education research.

Perkins is director of the PhET Interactive Simulations Project at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of CU’s Science Education Initiative. She’s also an associate professor attendant rank in physics.

The PhET project recently was named a 2011 Tech Award Laureate and received the $50,000 Microsoft Education Award at the Tech Awards for its role in using technical solutions to benefit humanity. PhET develops fun, free, interactive, research-based simulations of science and math concepts, whether it be how temperature and snowfall affect glaciers, how buoyancy works, or a visual description of the properties of gases. More than 100 simulations are translated into 64 languages for use in classrooms around the world.

1. How did you arrive at CU and why did you choose physics education research as your work?

I earned a physics undergraduate degree at Harvard. I had always wanted to do something that would help society so I originally pursued using my science background on environmental problems, specifically atmospheric science. For my graduate degree, I studied ozone depletion and creating new instruments that would help measure chemical compounds important in controlling ozone in the atmosphere.

Then I came to Colorado to focus on tropospheric chemistry. (The troposphere is where we all live.) But I felt a longing to work on a project that had more immediate impact on people and their lives. The university was advertising for a position of physics instructor who would also work in physics education research. That was the first time I’d ever heard of this new – and still growing – field. It was exciting and eye-opening for me to think that you could study how people learn science and take those results and teach science more effectively. In 2003, I began working as a postdoctoral researcher with Carl Wieman, working on the PhET project as well as co-teaching courses for non-science majors. Together we would examine the course content and how it should be taught, and create an interactive lecture experience using clickers and simulations. The idea was to tie the content to everyday life, improve learning and make science relevant and interesting for students.

2. What is PhET’s mission and how do these simulations improve student learning? Who develops the simulations and how are they translated?

PhET’s mission is to advance science literacy and education worldwide through engaging, interactive simulations. We have more than 100 simulations on the website covering areas of physics and chemistry, along with a growing number in biology, earth science and math. Each simulation offers an intuitive, game-like environment where students can engage in exploration like a scientist would, and where they can see the invisible, so they can literally interact with things like electrons, neutrons and protons to build their own atoms. Through the interaction and the immediate feedback they get, they can develop an understanding of key science concepts such as important cause-and-effect relationships
and can build connections to everyday life. They can also experiment with things they can’t experiment with in everyday life, such as building molecules, changing gravity, or shooting photons. With the Circuit Construction Kit simulation, for instance, students can interact with a battery by easily increasing or decreasing the voltage with a slider and immediately see how a light bulb gets brighter and electrons go faster when they increase the voltage. With the simulations, students can develop a visual, mental model of what’s happening.

One thing that makes the PhET project unique is that it’s research-based. We take the published research and our own research, digest it, and integrate it into the design. Our group studies the features of effective simulations, how students learn from simulations, and use of simulations in the classroom. Right now, we have about 15 people on the PhET team. It’s a great team. Everyone is vested in making the best simulations possible, simulations that are highly effective learning tools and are also fun for students. When we start a new simulation, we create a design team with expertise across different areas. The team will have content specialists, teachers who would use the simulation, design experts, an education researcher and  professional software developer. We brainstorm about the simulation. We storyboard the design and develop scenarios of what students would be able to interact with. Once that’s done, we start programming and test features as we go along.  For every simulation, we conduct interviews with students. During the “think-aloud” interview, we ask them to open and play with everything and talk about what they are doing. We want to see whether students engage with learning from the simulation and find out what is working and what is not. We always learn something, and make revisions as necessary. It takes about four to nine months
to complete a simulation.

Because science is a universal language, science teachers in Africa are teaching the same material as teachers in the U.S. So, we wanted to make the PhET simulations available to everyone. Since the simulations have very few words, the amount of text needing to be translated is quite small. We created a simple software package that anyone can use to translate the text and e-mail us the file. The translators are all volunteers and are typically scientists or science teachers  who want to bring these simulations to the students in their country, in their native language.

3. Where does PhET project funding come from?

Most of the funding comes from federal grants and foundations. We want the PhET project to be sustainable for the long-term, however, so we’re trying to increase the number of corporate and individual donations. Companies are allowed to use the simulations for free. Pearson, for instance, uses them in textbooks and in their online homework system. We’re working to develop an NPR-like model where companies sponsor the project in lieu of a licensing fee, so that we can create more simulations and improve the sustainability of the project. We are also trying to develop a micro-donation model so that individuals can donate small amounts. Every year, 22 million simulations are run from our website and in 5 years we expect this number to be more than 100 million. Eventually, micro-donations could help fund a significant fraction of the budget.

4. Why aren’t more students interested in science/technology fields?

Many students don’t see science as relevant or interesting to them. That’s one of the key things we need to change; we need to illuminate how science fits into everyday life and teach it in a way that is interesting to today’s students, in a way that they can understand the key concepts in science. I also think students can develop an impression that science is not a social endeavor, even though it is highly social with strong communities of scientists working together to solve problems. Creating classroom environments that involves more group work, dialog, and construction of their own ideas can help convey what science really is and how it’s being done by today’s scientists.

One thing we’re looking at is how to best integrate PhET into classrooms through activities and teacher facilitation. We just conducted a research study led by post-doc Kelly Lancaster where we used three different versions of an activity. One was open and exploratory, another was a guided inquiry-based activity, and a third was the more cookbook activity where students were given explicit instructions. We collected video of the students interacting and screen captures of what they did with the simulations. Preliminary results show that when you have an open, exploratory question, students interact and explore many parameters and are investigating. With the more cookbook activity, the students stick to the script. They open the simulation, set it up like the instructions say, write down the data and click on the next thing. It’s much less exploratory and doesn’t resemble how a scientist would explore it.

5. You mentioned perception of the sciences as a key to learning. What has your own research uncovered about that?

I’ve been lucky to be able to collaborate with researchers here across a number of different topics related to science education. I’ve looked at students’ perceptions about physics and chemistry and how that’s impacted by different approaches to teaching and how those perceptions impact whether students continue on to major in physics or not. We used student responses from surveys to determine whether they see physics as related to the real world, if they think about physics in their everyday life, if they see physics as a collection of disconnected topics or as a coherent set of concepts that can explain the world around them, and whether they focus on memorization or on sense-making. What we found is that the students who come into college with perceptions of physics that are more like that of practicing scientists are the ones more likely to become physics majors. Developing more expertlike perceptions of science early on – for instance, through how science is presented in K-12 – appears to be a promising avenue to attracting more students into science majors.

Through the CU Science Education Initiative as well as other campus projects - the Learning Assistant Program, iSTEM, and the STEM education research group - I have been involved in the broader efforts to improve undergraduate science education on the Boulder campus. There’s a large group of dedicated faculty, postdocs, researchers, and grad students at CU who are invested in improving science learning for all of the undergrads. It’s been really rewarding to be able to be a part of those efforts and to see CU emerge as a leader in STEM education and education research.


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