|Science Magazine Honors Davidson Prof's Web Site that Makes Physics Come Alive
November 24, 2011
|Professor Christian explains a physics simulation to students.
Professor Wolfgang Christian's steadfast crusade to show the world a better way to teach physics has received acclaim from Science, one of the world's top publications on scientific issues. Christian, the Brown Professor of Physics at Davidson College, and collaborators Francisco Esquembre and Lyle Barbato received the magazine's monthly SPORE Prize (Science Prize for Online Resources in Education) for development of a national digital library hosting a collection of interactive computer simulations.
The November 25 edition of the publication announces the honor for their creation of the Open Source Physics (OSP) Web site, and includes a two-page essay describing the educational benefits of the system of online physics resources they are compiling there.
Their essay explains, "The Open Sources Physics (OSP) project seeks to enhance computational physics education by providing a central Web site containing computer modeling tools, simulations, curricular resources such as lesson plans, and a computational physics textbook."
Christian has for many years recognized that students who learn physics concepts via static pictures may end up with incomplete or incorrect mental models of physics concepts. The typical strategy for novice learners is to attempt to solve a problem by finding a formula without analyzing the problem using the underlying physics concepts. However, the OSP site offers interactive, customizable, computerized exercises that lead students to solve problems through observation of motion, application of appropriate concepts, and measurements that lead to mathematical analysis.
This OSP approach improves comprehension and visualization of abstract physics concepts through a pedagogical process called the Learning Cycle developed by Berkeley professor Robert Karplus in the 1960s. In the first "exploration" phase, students consider a problem and make predictions about the outcome. In the second "invention" phase, the teacher and students share observations and ideas. In the final "application" phase, the teacher poses new problems based on their initial exploration during the second phase.
Science magazine is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society. The magazine developed SPORE to recognize the best online materials in science education. "We're trying to advance science education," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. "This competition recognizes innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science can help guide educators to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed."
The SPORE award validates again the efficacy of online learning that Christian and his departmental colleague Professor Mario Belloni have long promoted in a carefully managed strategy of curriculum development, publication, educational outreach, and educational research. They have published about a dozen books on the subject, led frequent workshops, and presented talks at professional meetings worldwide.
Christian's efforts have received several previous awards. In 1999 Computers in Physics magazine presented him its first-ever "Grand Prize" for developments in physics software. In 2002 he won the MERLOT award as creator of one of the three top educational software packages of the year. In 2004 he received a Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers. In 2009 the Southeast Section of the American Physical Society presented him its Pegram Award for outstanding contributions to physics education. He and collaborators have also received four major grants from the National Science Foundation totaling about $2 million to further their work.
Christian has been an enthusiastic innovator of computer-based learning at Davidson, where he has taught since 1983. In 1986 he established the first Ethernet network on campus to create a physics computation center. By 1991 he was beginning to use computers throughout the physics curriculum, and was using the Web to deliver curriculum materials to others. In 1992 he hosted a computational physics conference that attracted about 120 participants.
In 1998 the department hired theoretical physicist Mario Belloni, who began working with Christian on computational physics. They began creating online interactive simulations they trademarked as "Physlets,"® which facilitate student learning by requiring users to manipulate elements of simulations of concepts such as the Doppler effect, optics, binary stars, the moment of inertia of solids, rocket propulsion, and the conversion of kinetic energy to thermal energy. They eventually published four Physlet® books with more than 1,200 simulations covering the field from levers and pulleys to quantum mechanics.
Though the Physlets® enterprise thrived, Christian recognized that the system was ultimately limited because the underlying software was copyrighted by a textbook publisher and wasn't available for computational physics education.
The next step was development of a complete digital library for computational physics, that branch of the science that investigates cutting edge problems too expensive, too time consuming, or too large for actual experimentation. That includes phenomena such as black holes, plate tectonics, climate change, and aeronautical and vehicle design.
It was important that the library be "open source," so that users could tinker freely with existing material and contribute material of their own. "By designating the code library as open source, it has become stronger because we collect the contributions of many people with different interests," said Christian.
The library contains not only exercises, but also curricula and software tools that make its use relatively easy for users with limited knowledge of computer-based modeling. In 2001 the NSF supported the effort with a $500,000 grant. Christian dubbed the idea as the Open Source Physics project, and housed it within the NSF-supported ComPADRE digital library.
|Professor Wolfgang Christian
Christian's colleague Francisco Esquembre, a professor of mathematical analysis at the University of Murcia, Spain, contributed to the effort through his development of Easy Java Simulations (EJS), which allow students with minimal knowledge of computer code to manipulate the elements of a model, experiment with the effects of those manipulations, and learn firsthand about physics and its laws.
Lyle Barbato, technical director of the ComPADRE digital library, developed the OSP Web site, providing an infrastructure for the online dissemination of OSP materials such as the ready-to-run simulations, EJS and a video analysis tool called Tracker.
The next big step came in 2005 when the Davidson team received a fourth major NSF grant, $450,000 for the Open Physics Technology for Interactive Curriculum (OPTIC) project. This grant allowed them to begin packaging material in the Open Source Physics library as curriculums for teaching physics at many levels. Although the pedagogy is similar to what was used with Physlets ®, these new simulations were targeted for specialized, upper-level instruction in classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and special and general relativity.
Christian said, "The technology and the way we create these simulations puts students on an equal footing with the faculty. Students can soak up the technique and technology as fast as faculty can, so our projects are much more of a cooperative venture than the traditional professor-student relationship. I learn from them as often as they learn from me."
Recent surveys have shown that more than 20 percent of the 40,000 physics teachers in the USA are aware of OSP. The OSP Web site last year delivered about 500,000 page views and more than 50,000 simulation downloads.
As the impact of effort primarily by a professor in a six-person department at a small liberal arts college, the OSP project and SPORE award are significant achievements. But Christian has never gotten ahead by standing still. With a well-stocked library of collegiate and graduate-school level simulations in OSP, Christian is now emphasizing work appropriate to K-12 students, and is investigating how to use collaborative tools and social media to teach and promote computational physics education.
He's hoping that the recognition in Science will further those efforts and attract new users by making them aware of OSP. It's all a step at a time toward his ultimate lofty goal. "We want to be leaders at the national level in physics education," he asserted.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.