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Planning for virtual experiments

As we discussed at the start of this course, you need to be realistic about what you can cover in a week, or by the end of term. Define the most essential outcomes for your students.

Science is a practical subject, but developing students’ technical skills, such as setting up a burette, aseptic technique or using a measuring cylinder correctly is not going to be possible in the home. However, there are some enquiry-based skills, such as data analysis or interpreting graphs for example, which students can still practice through the use of virtual experiments, provided they are well planned. Some of the features of virtual experiments which can support this are:

  • For some experiments, a large data set can be produced quickly, to allow students to move on to the analysis and discussion phases.
  • Students can work independently to gain results- whereas they may often work in groups in the classroom environment.
  • It allows some practical activities to be done that would be challenging to do hands-on in school settings.
  • Simulations and virtual experiments can sometimes be used for enquiry-based activities, where students can select from an array of equipment.

When planning the activity, consider:

  • What prior knowledge of similar practical activities will the students have?
  • What is the core purpose of the simulation- what do you want your students to achieve?
  • What is the defined learning outcome(s) for the practical?
  • Is it revision or a new topic? The latter is quite challenging to do well.
  • What outputs will the students produce - such as a table and graph of results?

There are a huge number of simulations available. Picking the right one can be challenging. Be frugal. It’s better to choose one or two simulations in a sequence of learning, than to link to every simulation you’ve found. Good use of simulations takes time.

The PHET simulations are well-regarded for science and maths activities- and are free.

The range of simulations are broad, so here are a few that might be a good starting point- though feel free to use others- or even different websites, if you prefer (and share the link so that other people can have a look!) We’ve provided a checklist of some of the pitfalls to watch out for when choosing a simulation.


Have a look through the PHET Simulations website at what’s available to find one you would feel comfortable using. This could be one that you intend to use in the near future for your students, so you can trial it out with them.

In the next step you are going to develop a set of instructions so that students learning is directed and scaffolded.

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This article is from the free online course:

Teaching for Home Learning: Secondary Science

National STEM Learning Centre