Using interactive simulations to transform undergraduate chemistry education

Project No.
PI Name
Emily Moore
University of Colorado Boulder
Target Discipline


Abstract 1

Using interactive simulations to transform undergraduate chemistry education

Presentation Type
Emily B. Moore, University of Colorado Boulder Robert Parson, University of Colorado Boulder Katherine Perkins, University of Colorado Boulder


Interactive simulations are powerful educational tools with great potential to transform the way chemistry is taught and learned. The transformative power of simulations, however, depends on the quality of the simulation design and how effectively they are used by faculty.


In this TUES project, we build upon prior work in the PhET Interactive Simulations project to 1) create high quality chemistry simulations, 2) to work with a community of chemistry faculty to develop supporting teacher resources, and 3) to investigate simulation use in undergraduate classrooms.


Since the beginning of this project we have designed and developed a dozen cross-platform compatible (e.g., available on PCs and Macs, laptops and tablets) chemistry simulations that are research-based, and student and classroom-tested. The simulations were designed and developed by a team of chemistry faculty, postdoctoral researchers, design experts, and software developers. The team engaged in an iterative design process resulting in a set of simulations for introductory level chemistry courses. Each simulation is designed to address a challenging topic in chemistry education, and utilizes productive affordances and constraints to scaffold student exploration and learning.
To support effective implementation of the simulations, we brought together a community of chemistry teachers experienced in a range of pedagogical approaches to co-develop a suite of teaching resources for introductory chemistry level use of PhET simulations. The community consisted of faculty and postdocs, with monthly meetings to collaborate on resource development, share challenges and successes in simulation use, and to discuss simulation insights across the diverse design and classroom experiences represented. The result is a range of classroom-tested resources including interactive lecture demonstrations, clicker questions, and guided-inquiry activities.
To investigate the use of the simulations and associated teaching resources, we conducted surveys, student interviews, as well as classroom studies in a subset of the faculty communityメs implementations. Survey findings indicated that teachers are most in need of tablet compatible simulations, and supporting resources ヨ informing our choice of teacher community activities. Interview findings informed the effective design of cross-platform compatible simulations, particularly design for touch interfaces and accessibility. Published research findings include articles on the role of activity guidance in impacting studentsメ use of simulations, the use of PhET simulations and activity development for chemistry faculty, simulation design for tablets, simulation design for accessibility, and on using simulations to support expert practices in balancing chemical equations.

Broader Impacts

This work has produced a suite of HTML5 chemistry simulations that are transforming the educational experience of students. Through the high quality simulations and supporting resources, teachers can implement effective simulation-based activities that guide their students in the understanding of concepts through exploration, experimentation, and discussion. Each simulation is available for free, is cross-platform compatible, and translatable ヨ making them accessible for worldwide use. Collectively, these simulations have been run over 4,000,000 times. The faculty community created more than two dozen classroom-tested resources ヨ with a combined 64,000 views. Investigations have involved research collaborations across faculty, postdocs, and students, with findings disseminated through numerous venues to design, research, and practitioner audiences.

Unexpected Challenges

A challenging aspect of this project has been the co-design of teaching resources. The co-design faculty can lose track of their progress on resources during particularly busy semesters. To address these challenges, we partnered each faculty member with a postdoc, providing one main point of contact, and a partner to keep them up to date and to check-in if they missed a meeting or deadline. Each postdoc also found ways to support the specific needs of each faculty, by attending to details like activity formatting, uploading to the website, and suggestions for keeping each activity type consistent.


Clark, T. M., & Chamberlain, J. M. (2014). Use of a PhET Interactive Simulation in General Chemistry Laboratory: Models of the Hydrogen Atom. Journal of Chemical Education, 91(8), 1198ヨ1202. doi:10.1021/ed400454p

Moore, E. B., Chamberlain, J. M., Parson, R., & Perkins, K. K. (2014). PhET Interactive Simulations: Transformative Tools for Teaching Chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 91(8), 1191ヨ1197. doi:10.1021/ed4005084

Chamberlain, J. M., Lancaster, K., Parson, R., & Perkins, K. K. (2014). How guidance affects student engagement with an interactive simulation. Chemistry Education Research and Practice. doi:10.1039/c4rp00009a

Moore, E. B., Carpenter, Y., Parson, R., Perkins, K. (2014) From demonstrations & clicker questions to guided-inquiry activities: Resources for integrating PhET Simulations into introductory chemistry courses. DivCHED CCCE: Committee on Computers in Chemistry Fall Newsletter. Retrieved from

Moore, E. B. (2015). Tilting the Tablet: The Effect of Tablet Tilt on Hand Occlusion. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1633-1638). ACM.

Moore, E. B. Designing accessible interactive chemistry simulations. (2015) Spring 2015 ConfChem: Interactive Visualizations for Chemistry Teaching and Learning.

Carpenter, Y., Moore, E. B., & Perkins, K. K. (2015) Using an interactive simulation to support development of expert practices for balancing chemical equations. Spring 2015 ConfChem: Interactive Visualizations for Chemistry Teaching and Learning.

Lancaster, K., Moore, E.B., Parson, R., & Perkins, K. (2013). Insights from Using PhETメs Design Principles for Interactive Chemistry Simulations. Pedagogic Roles of Animations and Simulations in Chemistry Courses 1142. American Chemical Society. 97.

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