8 Physics and Astronomy

Last update: June 1/20

Alpha Decay (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Good simulation for concepts.

Atomic Interactions (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Useful as the simulation creates a nice clear graph, as would be produced in a hands-on version of this lab, meaning it can yield rich discussion from students.

Balancing Act (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. Simple and clear introduction to the “law of the lever.” Could be good for a participation or pre-lab grade.

Band Structure (PhET) (CC BY)

First- or second-year physics. Covers band structure in crystals of atoms and how that relates to conductivity.

Bending Light (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year optics. Great simulator: clearly shows Snell’s law as well as total internal reflection. Has the great feature to see the laser as a wave and a beam.

Blackbody Spectrum (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. From PhET: ” Learn about the blackbody spectrum of Sirius A, the sun, a light bulb, and the earth. Adjust the temperature to see the wavelength and intensity of the spectrum change. View the colour of the peak of the spectral curve.”

Buoyancy (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. From PhET: “Learn how buoyancy works with blocks. Arrows show the applied forces, and you can modify the properties of the blocks and the fluid.”

Calculus Grapher (PhET) (CC BY)

Interactive plot builder for a function. It would be useful as a simple visualization tool. Great way to show the relationships between functions and derivatives. The kinematics forms drop out right away, and resonance curves are clear.

Capacitor Lab and Capacitor Lab: Basics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year electricity and magnetism. Great lab when looking into how capacitors work and how to set them up in series and parallel. Can generate conceptual data as well as graphical data using the voltmeter, as would be found in a hands-on lab.

Charges and Fields (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year electricity and magnetism. This is nicer than a hands-on lab: great way to see how electric fields change and move. Clear layout and fairly accessible; the vectors and values are superb visuals. Possible to get students to sketch out various field lines.

Circuit Construction Kit (AC+DC) and Circuit Construction Kit (AC+DC), Virtual Lab (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year electricity and magnetism. Simulates circuit building. Though students are missing out on firsthand circuit construction, this is a great way for students to play around with circuits. Labs can be made around these constructions kits and important concepts can be passed down to students. Great feature is that you have access to multiple circuit items.

Circuit Construction Kit: DC and Circuit Construction Kit: DC — Virtual Lab (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. From PhET: “Build circuits with batteries, resistors, light bulbs, fuses, and switches. Determine if everyday objects are conductors or insulators, and take measurements with an ammeter and voltmeter. View the circuit as a schematic diagram, or switch to a lifelike view.”

Collision Lab (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. From PhET: “Use an air hockey table to investigate simple collisions in 1D and more complex collisions in 2D.” This sophisticated simulation goes up to coefficient of restitution. It could easily be used as homework.

Colour Vision (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year optics. Can be used to discuss light dispersion and rainbows. More of an inquiry or activity, as opposed to a more formal lab, as it is all concept-based, but you could make up a nice series of questions (as can be found in the Teacher Resources part of the PhET) about the various colour combinations.

Coulomb’s Law (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. From PhET: “Visualize the electrostatic force that two charges exert on each other. Observe how changing the sign and magnitude of the charges and the distance between them affects the electrostatic force.” The ruler and force meter mean that a nice inverse square graph can be generated. Includes an introduction to scientific notation.

Curve Fitting (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. From PhET: “Drag data points and their error bars and watch the best-fit polynomial curve update instantly. You choose the type of fit: linear, quadratic, or cubic. The reduced chi-square statistic shows you when the fit is good. Or you can try to find the best fit by manually adjusting fit parameters.”

Davisson-Germer: Electron Diffraction (PhET) (CC BY)

Second-year physics. Covers electron diffraction. This is nowhere as “pretty” as the other simulations, but as a result, has a much more realistic feel to it. Best done after Waves PhETs.

Diffusion (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year diffusion and thermodynamics. From PhET: “Mix two gases to explore diffusion. Experiment with concentration, temperature, mass, and radius and determine how these factors affect the rate of diffusion.”

Double Wells and Covalent Bonds (PhET) (CC BY)

Second-year physics. Contains multiple activities for an introductory or intermediate quantum class.

Energy Skate Park and Energy Skate Park: Basics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year mechanics. This is a good lab, as this simulation generates lovely graphs that can be analyzed by the students, illustrating standard kinetic versus potential energy curves. Clear with some nice variations; covers the law of conservation of energy. Being able to control friction makes this an exceptionally useful simulation

Faraday’s Electromagnetic Lab (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. From PhET: “Play with a bar magnet and coils to learn about Faraday’s law. Move a bar magnet near one or two coils to make a light bulb glow. View the magnetic field lines. A meter shows the direction and magnitude of the current. View the magnetic field lines or use a meter to show the direction and magnitude of the current. You can also play with electromagnets, generators and transformers.”

Faraday’s Law (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. Covers electromagnetic induction. Contains questions that are in most first-year physics labs.

Fine Beam Tube

First-year electricity and magnetism. The e/me lab is a Nobel Prize–winning lab and part of the great paradigm shift for quantum physics. The interface is easy to use and gives real data, just like in a hands-on lab. You can easily choose values that make it “not work” — an important part of lab work. Requires a free Open University account.

Forces and Motion: Basics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. This simulation provides nice and easy to understand visuals of the key concepts of velocity, acceleration, and force.

Gases Intro (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Students can generate quantitative data of temperature and pressure using the virtual gauges in this simulation. Simpler version of Gas Properties.

Gas Properties (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. It includes some qualitative molecular kinetics, and a quantitative diffusion simulation. More advanced version of Gases Intro.

GasSim: a gas simulation app

First-year physics. GasSim is a nice lab that generates graphs similar to what a student would create in a hands-on laboratory. Students can change the variables so many different versions of the lab could be created and analyzed.

Generator (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. Demonstrates Faraday’s law. This simulation can generate qualitative data using virtual instruments and has the ability to change the number of coils. This could be either a demo or part of a concept check.

Geometric Optics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year optics. Requires Flash, but covers an essential first-year physics concept. It could be used to illustrate how magnification and image position change as you move an object.

Gravity and Orbits (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year and upper-level physics and astronomy for non-majors. Illustrates Newton’s law of gravity and inertia that form circular orbits. Everyone loves to watch the planets move off in a straight line when you turn gravity off. A great activity or short “lab.” Should do the Gravity Force Lab first.

Gravity Force Lab and Gravity Force Lab: Basics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. This is a lab that is very difficult to do in a hands-on environment, so the simulation is very valuable. It generates nice qualitative data of force as a function of distance. Introduces scientific notation and more realistic values.

Hooke’s Law (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Good for introducing Hooke’s Law and could be used as an exercise to confirm some numerical values. This is a great virtual lab, as it helps with both the qualitative concepts of masses on a string and generates qualitative graphs that yield rich discussion from students. Pairs well with Masses and Springs.

John Travoltage (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. It is most useful as a pre-lab activity, but you can ask many questions that prompt explanations, such as “Why is there a minimum number of foot movements needed before the spark occurs?” to get at the idea of critical breakdown voltage.

Ladybug Motion 2D and Ladybug Revolution (PhET) (CC BY)

The first activity is a demo to show the relationship between velocity and acceleration vectors in arbitrary 2D motion. The second activity generates nice graphs of orbital motion and shows the vector nature of rotation.

Lasers (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. Might be useful as a pre-lab activity for a laser-based lab. Could be used as a way of explaining the trade-offs in design.

Magnets and Electromagnets (PhET) (CC BY)

From PhET: “Explore the interactions between a compass and bar magnet. Discover how you can use a battery and wire to make a magnet. Can you make it a stronger magnet? Can you make the magnetic field reverse?” Good demonstration piece.

Masses and Springs and Masses and Springs: Basics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year kinematics lab, either for Hooke’s law or acceleration due to gravity. It is appropriate for students who are in either a calculus-based or a non-calculus–based kinematics course. The simulation is clearly laid out and is easy to use. It is missing the error analysis and error propagation part of the lab, but it is a decent replacement for a hands-on lab. With the ruler and the force meter, students can generate graphs to analyze, just like in hands-on labs. The energy graphs beautifully illustrate the law of conservation of energy.

Models of the Hydrogen Atom and Rutherford Scattering (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Models of the Hydrogen Atom is a good pre-lab activity to help differentiate between the various models of an atom (pudding, solar system, de Broglie). Rutherford Scattering pairs well for an effective, qualitative investigation of scientific modelling.

Molecules and Light (PhET) (CC BY)

This simple activity shows the effect of different wavelengths on different molecules.

The Moving Man (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Demonstrates graphing motion. You can make the students “program” a particular setup to test their learning.

Nuclear Fission (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Great fun to fire a neutron into various atoms and watch them decay, or not. Useful as a pre-lab activity. The nuclear reactor is also fun to play with, but has different control mechanisms than Canadian CANDU reactors.

Ohm’s Law (PhET) (CC BY)

From PhET: “See how the equation form of Ohm’s law relates to a simple circuit. Adjust the voltage and resistance, and see the current change according to Ohm’s law.”

Pendulum Lab (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year kinematics. Great lab. Like many simulations, it’s missing the concepts of error analysis and error propagation. However, it does give \students the opportunity to see the relationship between pendulum length, mass, and periods.

Photoelectric Effect (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Einstein won his Nobel Prize for the photoelectric effect, and this lab is a very nice (but idealized) simulation of that work. This simulation is suitable for concept-based teaching of the core principles in the topic.

Projectile Motion (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. The angles and ranges are easy to measure, so this can easily translate into a very nice simulation lab.

Quantum Bound States (PhET) (CC BY)

Second-year physics. From PhET: “Explore the properties of quantum ‘particles’ bound in potential wells. See how the wave functions and probability densities that describe them evolve (or don’t evolve) over time.”

Quantum Tunnelling and Wave Packets (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. This would be a nice in-class illustration of key concepts as well as a potential lab.

Quantum Wave Interference (PhET) (CC BY)

First- and second-year physics and astronomy. Demonstrates wave particle duality. This is a nice simulation lab, as it is easy to change the quantities, such as slit width, to get good quantitative data that can yield rich discussion from students.

Radiating Charge (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. From PhET: “Watch radiation propagate outward at the speed of light as you wiggle the charge. Stop a moving charge to see bremsstrahlung (braking) radiation. Explore the radiation patterns as the charge moves with sinusoidal, circular, or linear motion. You can move the charge any way you like, as long as you don’t exceed the speed of light.”

The Ramp and Ramp: Forces and Motion (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. Shows the force components present on a ramp. Nice numerical data with the angles and the forces.

Resonance (PhET) (CC BY)

Second-year physics or higher. From PhET: “Observe resonance in a collection of driven, damped harmonic oscillators. Vary the driving frequency and amplitude, the damping constant, and the mass and spring constant of each resonator. Notice the long-lived transients when damping is small, and observe the phase change for resonators above and below resonance.”

Simplified MRI (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. This is a nice simulation of resonance, as well as MRI. The associated lecture is very good.

States of Matter and States of Matter: Basics (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. This lab demonstrates an important concept and as there is both a thermometer and a pressure gauge a student can generate nice data, including graphs allowing rich discussion by students. One of my top ten PhET labs.

Stern-Gerlach Experiment (PhET) (CC BY)

Second-year physics. This is a nice simulated lab. Useful tool for getting a feeling for the quantum nature of spin when first learning the concept. The running totals and fractions also have the makings of a statistics lab.

Tracker (GNU General Public License 3.0)

A video analysis and modelling tool. Tracker is a great piece of software and is very useful for first-year physics labs. This was mentioned at the 2020 Physics & Astronomy Articulation meeting as being one of the best pieces of virtual lab software.

Under Pressure (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. This is a good lab, as fluid and pressures are an important part of all first-year physics labs.  This simulation generates good numerical data, thanks to the pressure gauge.

Vector Addition (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics. Helps reinforce the concepts of vector addition.

Waves Intro, Wave on a String, and Wave Interference (PhET) (CC BY)

First-year physics and astronomy. Waves Intro and Wave on a String are more concept building simulations, whereas Wave Interference can be used as a lab that is often done in first-year physics optics and astronomy labs, as well as engineering labs. This virtual simulation and lab highlight things that are very difficult to see in a hands-on lab. The Waves Intro clearly helps students understand velocity, frequency, and wavelength, as well as the similarities between water, sound, and light waves.


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Virtual Lab and Science Resource Directory by BCcampus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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