This paper situates PhET computer simulations (sims) in a socio-cultural-historical context. Sims are cultural tools designed to embody certain norms and practices of the physics community, particularly learning through exploration. We focus on interactions between three scales of tools: representations, materials, and environments. We examine critical features of tools across these three scales which support student learning through engaged exploration. We support our claims with data from studies of use of sims in introductory physics laboratories.
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