Plenary Speaker Profile (2014)
Katherine Perkins
Associate Professor of Physics
University of Colorado
Implicit scaffolding in interactive simulations: Engaging students and supporting STEM learning

As STEM faculty, we are faced with the challenge of addressing multiple educational goals in our courses – from achieving specific content learning, to developing disciplinary practices and habits of mind, to growing student's appreciation and engagement in STEM. In this talk, I examine how education technology – specifically interactive simulations – can be designed to open up new opportunities to simultaneously support these diverse goals. Over the past 10 years, the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder has developed 128 free interactive simulations for teaching and learning STEM topics ( PhET project). Each simulation provides a highly interactive environment which supports scientist-like exploration, makes the invisible visible, includes the visual models that experts use, and emphasizes the connections between real life phenomena and the underlying science. These simulations use implicit scaffolding – a design approach developed out of the PhET project that draws on the education research literature and our experience of designing over 100 interactive simulations. Implicit scaffolding offers a new perspective on and approach to scaffolding. During the talk, I will introduce implicit scaffolding and use examples from our group's research to examine how this approach to scaffolding allows students to engage in exploration that is both student - driven and productive for student learning of content. Finally, we will look at the implications for classroom implementation and how this new form of scaffolding can interplay with scaffolding provided through teacher facilitation or activity worksheets to create productive learning opportunities.

Kathy Perkins is Associate Professor Attendant Rank in Physics at the University of Colorado - Boulder, a member of Physics Education Research Group at Colorado (PER@C), Director of the PhET Interactive Simulations Project and Director of CU's Science Education Initiative. Her work in science education research has focused on pedagogically-effective design and use of interactive simulations; sustainable course reform; students' beliefs about science; and institutional change. Before arriving at CU, she was trained as an experimental physicist and atmospheric scientist at Harvard University. In January 2003 she transitioned to Physics Education Research (PER) as a post-doctoral researcher with Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Carl Wieman.

Her work with the PhET project has been groundbreaking. The PhET project was named a 2011 Tech Award Laureate and received the $50,000 Microsoft Education Award at the Tech Awards for its role in using technical solutions to benefit humanity. PhET develops fun, free, interactive, research-based simulations of science and math concepts. To learn more about Kathy's work on the PhET project, see the interview she gave at CU Connections.

As a member of the PER@C Kathy has collaborated on a number of projects with other leaders in the PER Community. The PER@C is one of the newest and largest research programs in PER in the nation. The research group develops and studies: uses of technology in physics education, assessments (conceptual, epistemological, and belief oriented), theoretical models of students learning physics, social and contextual foundations of student learning, examination of successful educational reforms and replication studies of such reforms, and student problem-solving in physics. The group at Colorado sponsors a number of educational reforms in physics, which range from pre-college to post-doctoral and includes faculty, staff, and students from both the Department of Physics and the School of Education.