Integrating Digital Simulations Into Science Courses

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

Join PhET Director and University of Colorado Boulder professor Dr. Kathy Perkins and Smart Sparrow’s Director of Studio Innovation Jacqui Hayes for an interactive discussion on the technology revolutionizing science education: digital simulations. We’ll discuss the pedagogical side of simulations and the impact of they can have on student success.


Jacqui Hayes serves as Smart Sparrow's Director of Studio Innovation. An award-winning science educator, she is passionate about enabling anyone to pursue STEM careers, bringing deep expertise in science education solutions. As the product manager for Smart Sparrow’s suite of science courseware, she led development of award-winning BioBeyond from concept to launch to ongoing improvements. In 2017, she was a finalist in the NSF Visualization Awards and the Department of Education EdSim Challenge. In 2018 she, Dr. Ariel Anbar, and Dr. Saad Khan collaborated to win NYU's Algorithm for Change AI/ML competition.
Dr. Kathy Perkins directs PhET Interactive Simulations at University of Colorado Boulder, and is a faculty member in Physics Education Research. Her work focuses on advancing the design and classroom use of interactive simulations to increase engagement and learning in STEM, and on scaling impact with open educational resources. She previously directed CU’s Science Education Initiative. She has authored over 60 articles on STEM education. In recent years, her team launched PhET-iO sims – interoperable sims enabling customization, integration, and data – and has been a leading innovator in accessible simulations, creating new opportunities to advance learning and assessment for all students.

Extended Abstract


Presenters will facilitate a conversation on the value of experiential learning in the sciences and the experiences of participants with digital learning.


Presenters will introduce participants to the world of science simulations, detail their potential value to students and educators, and share use cases of science simulations in higher education. They will also go over the multiple learning goals supported by quality science simulations, including those relevant to content, process, soft skills, hard skills, and affective qualities of a learning experience.

Presenters will then detail the Guiding Principles of Effective Simulation Design, such as Implicit Scaffolding, which is integrated into great sims (Adams et al. 2008a, J. Interactive Learning Research.) Desirable aspects include high levels of interactivity, immediate dynamic feedback, real world connections, accurate, dynamic visual models & representations, ways to show the invisible, scaffolding through design, allowing actions not possible in the real world, and an intuitive interface.

Impact on Learning & Future Plans - Presenters will share findings on student achievement when exposed to science simulations. Students have been shown to perform measurably better on MCQ assessments and short answer prompts when simulations have been integrated into their lessons. Research showed students’ scientific explanations being scored at a distribution of 10% 3’s, 50% 2’s, 35% 1’s, and 5% 0’s without sims, while of those who had partaken in sims, 18% of students earned 3’s, 55% 2’s, 25% 1’s, and 2% 0’s.

Frontiers for this technology include improvements to make sims customizable and interoperable with back-end data, platform integration, and improvements to make sims accessible to students with disabilities.


A selection of four simulations will be printed and distributed to participants. Session attendees will be asked to pick one simulation and create their own challenge prompt which would be given to students.

This session will feature a mini design task, during which participants will have the chance to step into the role of both learner and instructor. They will be given a selection of scientific simulations, with a visual aid and overview of the simulation’s function and rules included in each.

Session attendees will be asked to pick one simulation from the available examples and create their own challenge prompt which would be given to students as part of a lesson. As described by the presenters, this challenge prompt should not be prescriptive, but rather encourage exploration by the students. Attendees will work on this individually, then collaboratively - sharing their work with fellow participants and the presenters. Dr. Perkins and Ms. Hayes will offer their expert advice as seasoned educators and courseware creators.