High School students. Group of students working together at laboratory class.
High School students. Group of students working together at laboratory class.

Three Ways to Create Online Labs Using PhET

Utilize online laboratory tools to conduct lab experiments online or to create your own unique virtual lab experiments for your students.

North American April 14, 2021

 After my last article about tips for utilizing technology, I was surprised to find myself writing another article so soon. However, there was some interest in online labs and how they work. This article discusses three ways of using PhET (https://phet.colorado.edu/) to create online labs. 

 PhET is a free site made by the University of Colorado – Boulder. It has a wide variety of simulations covering the sciences and some math topics. It is one of the best online resources of virtual simulations out there. 

 So, how do I create labs from these simulations? 

Option 1: Use a premade lab other PhET users have already created for their class. See screenshot below: 

All PhET simulations have teacher-submitted activities, many of which are labs teachers have made for that simulation already at a variety of levels. These can be organized by level or subject. This can be a quick way to find an online lab.

Option 2: Modify an existing online lab based on your needs. 

 While some of the time, an existing lab has the right setup you like, it may be designed for an earlier level. You can still use these labs as a beginning of your lab activity. Oftentimes, there are advanced tabs in simulations that would work well with higher classes but the online lab you’ve found only uses the beginner tabs. See an example of a multiple-tabbed simulation below. 

The macro tab (1st screenshot) is more generally about conduction between ionic and covalent compounds but it’s more appropriate for junior high science or as an introduction.

On the micro tab, topics include dissociation, ion size and different solutes to address solubility rules to deepen the level of the lab. This tab is science 10/Chem 11 level. 

On the water tab you can now talk about polarity and ion-dipole interactions which is solidly in Chem 11. 

However, sometimes existing labs just don’t have what you want. 

Option 3: Create your own lab from scratch using a PhET simulation

 Although the most time-consuming, it can be worth your time to create your own custom lab from scratch. There are two keys to doing this successfully: i) do the lab yourself following your instructions and ii) understand what the simulation offers. 

I’ll use the balancing act simulation as an example. In this simulation, you place objects at different locations on the balancing beam and determine if they balance. It starts off pretty simple as you see. 

But on the next tab you can do various masses and mystery objects. This means that you can instruct students to come up with different arrangements that balance and solve for mystery masses using rotational equilibrium rules. You could even have students derive such rules. Doing the lab yourself will create the key and troubleshoot your directions.

 I hope this inspires you to try out PhET simulations!


Brock, MS Chemistry. He works at West Coast Adventist School teaching high school math, science and technology. Has been teaching online for 5 years and brick-and-mortar for 4 years before that.

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