Curriculum designed by educators, for educators

PRISMS PLUS is an internationally-recognized high school physics curriculum developed by professors in the Physics and Science Education departments at UNI.

PRISMS PLUS has had a major impact on the teaching of physics in nearly 1500 high schools in the U.S. and abroad. It also has had an impact in preparing future and existing teachers to teach high school physics.

PRISMS PLUS for students provides 44 complete learning cycles in four units. Each learning cycle includes original laboratory activities for exploration, concept development, and application plus the concept enhancer and conceptual practice support materials students need to complete their understanding. PRISMS PLUS was developed by Timothy Cooney, Lawrence Escalada, and Roy Unruh in collaboration with master high school physics teachers with support in part by the National Science Foundation under grant # ESI-9730586.

The comprehensive PRISMS PLUS teacher resources assist you in providing the learning environment you want where students can fully develop and apply their understanding of physics concepts.


How did PRISMS get started?

PRISMS (Physics Resources and Instructional Strategies for Motivating Students) was originally launched in 1987, and was made available to teachers through a variety of funding sources including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. PRISMS has been validated by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Diffusion Network and the Iowa Professional Development Model Content Network.

In its original form, PRISMS consisted of a teacher’s manual and a computer test bank featuring 2,000 questions and was not intended to replace textbooks. The teacher's manual contained approximately 130 student activities, encompassing an entire year of high school physics instruction.

The latest generation, PRISMS PLUS, utilizes an enhanced learning cycle pedagogy in which students engage in explorations prior to introduction of abstract concepts. After the concepts have been introduced within the context of these explorations, students are then provided with additional activities that are opportunities to apply what they have learned to real-life experiences.

The current version includes activities and exercises that are designed to develop conceptual understanding of the major physics ideas being introduced, engage students in scientific inquiry, and cultivate scientific reasoning and problem-solving skills.

Want to know more about the history of PRISMS?

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The focus of the new PRISMS PLUS is complete learning cycles, which provide fully integrated experiences that enable students to develop problem-solving, inquiry skills, and a deep, long-lasting understanding of physics concepts.

PRISMS PLUS consists of 44 learning cycles that are divided into the following units:

  • Force and Motion (14 learning cycles)
  • Work and Energy (8 learning cycles)
  • Waves and Optics (12 learning cycles)
  • Electricity, Magnetism, and Modern Physics

Three Types of Activities

Exploration, concept development, and application, present students with problems that engage them in scientific inquiry and call them to apply their observations to the concepts being introduced and to real-life applications. In the exploration activities, students make predictions and observations and discover patterns and relationships. The concept development activities provide opportunities for students to develop concepts within the context of what they have observed. The application activities provide students with a means to apply their understanding of concepts to new situations and real-life problems.

Each activity includes questions that provide a focus for students to link their observations and data with physics ideas and concepts. These questions also provide an opportunity for students to reflect on what they have learned and observed. Each activity also includes an extension that provides students with suggestions to make further observations, collect data, and arrive at evidence-based conclusions about the concepts being addressed.

Concept Support Materials

Each learning cycle’s Concept Enhancer is a one- to three-page student reading that contains references to observations and connections between concepts and phenomena that students should have shared in the exploration and concept development activities. Other relevant examples are also provided and discussed. The Concept Enhancer is carefully written to help facilitate the transition students must make from the observations they have made and the patterns and relationships they have discovered in the exploration activity to the development of the desired concept in the concept development activity. Conceptual Practice exercises provide students with opportunities to use their newly acquired knowledge and skills to analyze additional situations. These exercises give students practice in answering questions and solving problems that are conceptual in nature.

The Concept Enhancer and Conceptual Practice immediately follow the exploration and concept development activities but come prior to the application activity.

Student Materials

Multiple activities carefully ordered, targeted concept support materials, and software exercises make PRISMS PLUS the curriculum your students need. Using inexpensive materials with an activity-based pedagogy, you’ll generate interest and enthusiasm among students for the study of physics. Plus, students can extend their understanding of the physics concepts introduced in the learning cycles with additional activities that use Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) computer simulation software.

Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) PRISMS PLUS Student Activities

The CPU PRISMS PLUS activities use CPU computer simulation software to provide additional learning opportunities for students that complement and extend the learning cycles. They offer students virtual opportunities to apply their understanding to investigations that are not possible in the actual classroom

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Learning Cycle Teacher Notes

These teacher notes provide you with information and strategies on how to begin and how to wrap up a learning cycle.


Activity Teaching Notes and Answers

Specific activity teaching notes and answers to student edition questions are provided.



The PRISMS PLUS computer test bank contains objectives as well as questions related to the concepts being introduced in each of the learning cycles. This enhanced version of the original PRISMS computer test bank has been made more user-friendly and was available for PC users. Unfortunately, the test bank is not currently available, though some of the activities as well as activity extensions can be used as performance assessments to assess student understanding and proficiency in both scientific process and physics related skills.

Explore the PRIMS PLUS Units and Learning Cycle

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Ordering Information

PRISMS PLUS materials were distributed commercially through Centre Pointe Learning but they are no longer available through this company. A new publisher is currently being sought. In the meantime, the following PRISMS PLUS student and teacher materials may be purchased from the UNI Physics Department for $100.

Each order will be charged $5 for shipping & handling. Purchase orders may be faxed to 319-273-7136 care of Dr. Lawrence Escalada or a check made out to “PRISMS” may be sent to the following address: Dr. Lawrence Escalada Department of Physics #317 Begeman Hall University of Northern Iowa Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0150.

Professional Development

PRISMS provides the pedagogies for many of the UNI physics Education professional development programs. These have included one week and two week workshops as well as more comprehensive professional developmental programs. 

For more information about PRISMS PLUS and related professional development opportunities, contact:

Dr. Lawrence Escalada 
Physics Department 
University of Northern Iowa 
Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0150 
Phone: (319) 273-2431 
FAX: (319) 273-7136