More than 20 years ago I stepped into my first classroom. Before me sat rows and columns of students patiently waiting for me to teach them something. Today when I go to school things look pretty much the same. The science curriculum has changed little over the years and I still need to cover everything from Newton’s laws of motion to kinematics and electromagnetism. I still stand in front of class and teach, but my teaching style has evolved over the years. Nowadays I strive to motivate my students to become independent learners who can dive into problems and solve them on their own.
Demonstrations, interactive activities and lab work have always been at the heart of my teaching, but in recent years I have further refined my student centered approach. One of the ways that I have done this is through the use of computer simulations from PhET Interactive Simulations. Using these simulations and the guided-inquiry materials that I have developed, students discover for themselves the relationship between many physical parameters.
Before I lecture on the topic of simple harmonic motion, students complete the online Period of a Pendulum Lab. Using this simulation students can learn on their own what physical characteristics affect the period of a pendulum. Students enjoy working with the simulations because they are visual, easy to use, interactive, and give reliable results that can be easily checked and repeated. In my experience, students are more likely to remain focused when using these materials than listening to one of my lectures.
Online simulations reflect the growing role of technology in education. Students and teachers communicate through computers, materials are made available through learning management systems and students have access to an infinite amount of instructional content from websites like YouTube and many others. But, as Derek Muller says in The Most Persistent Myth, technology will not revolutionise education. Education is still based on the social interaction between teachers and learners. Teachers must inspire, challenge and excite students, as well as make them accountable for learning. This is the part of teaching that inspires me to continue after more than twenty years in the classroom.