Science - Imitate to appreciate

7th December 2012 at 00:00
Can't do the real experiment? Simulations can be excellent

Did you hear about the scientist who cooled herself to absolute zero? She's OK now!

We don't have access to ultra-low temperatures in school so it's not often we get to crack a joke as good as this in a lesson. We're also often forced to use online simulations because of lack of equipment or fears about safety. However, the use of well-designed simulations can actually enhance learning, as pupils are freer to experiment and play.

The excellent, and free, PHeT website run by the University of Colorado ( contains simulations that range from easy and quick static electricity exercises suitable for key stage 3, to complex and subtle quantum physics that would stretch the most able Year 13 student. Simulations are available in all science subjects, as well as maths and geography.

"John Travoltage" is a simple and funny simulation that involves the Hollywood legend rubbing his foot against the carpet and touching a door handle, demonstrating the production of static charge by the action of friction on an insulator, and the charge flowing to earth.

"Balloons and Static Electricity" takes pupils a step further, showing charge build-up as a flow of electrons and how balloons can be attracted to a wall by the separation of charge in the wall.

Many schools do not have class sets of equipment to allow pupils to explore the turning effects of forces, but the PHeT simulation "Balancing Act" allows children to experiment by changing the position of different objects on a see-saw before testing their ideas in balancing games of varying difficulty.

I have previously written about using role play when teaching electricity with little equipment. This can be reinforced by using "Circuit Construction Kit", which allows pupils to build circuits, see the electron flow, make measurements and even graph current flow and voltage for different elements in the circuit.

It is essential at the early stages of GCSE chemistry, as well as when covering radioactivity in physics, for pupils to understand how electrons arrange themselves in orbits around the nucleus of an atom, and how this is related to the number of protons in the nucleus. "Build an Atom" enables pupils to build any element in the periodic table before again being able to test their learning in a game that questions them on the subatomic composition of different atoms.

"Gas Properties" is a very detailed and accurate representation of the behaviour of an ideal gas, which can be used in key stage 3 to introduce the idea of particles and the qualitative way that pressure, temperature and volume affect a fixed mass of gas. The same simulation can be used at A level to look at the gas laws, even allowing a discussion of zero-point energy at absolute zero.

But these are just the tip of the iceberg: the PHeT site is full of sophisticated simulations that can be used by all levels.

Simon Porter collects science jokes and teaches physics at the British School of Warsaw, Poland

What else?

Try Simon Porter's lessons on static electricity, gas properties and turning forces.




Check out PHeT's resources: there are more than 80 interactive activities to liven up your lessons. bit.lytespHet.

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