Hour of Physics Code 2016


College-Prep Physics: I’ve been coding with my AP Physics classes for years. But in honor of this week’s Hour of Code, I tried VPython programming for the first time with my College-Prep class. We used GlowScript, but in a Trinket environment so that students could edit the code without creating a GlowScript account.

Why are we coding in physics class?

I asked the students if they had ever seen the first Toy Story movie:

Toy Story 1 vs. Toy Story 3

Toy Story 1 vs. Toy Story 3: Compare the folds and wrinkles in Andy’s shirt.

Realistic motion is often too complicated for animators to do by hand, says Michael Kass, a researcher at Pixar Animation Studios. “The results can be awful and very expensive.” He points to the original 1995 Toy Story and notes that “if you see a wrinkle in clothing, it’s because an animator decided to put in a wrinkle at that point in time. After that we [at Pixar] decided to do a short film to try out a physically based clothing simulation.”

(excerpt from “Animation uses old physics to new effect” in Physics Today)

Then I showed this simple cloth physics engine:


Next, we watched these short clips showing more advanced modeling of clothing, hair (from Tangled), and snow (from Frozen).

Now it was time for the students to tinker with some code which modeled our red and blue constant velocity buggies. Rather than have them do a tutorial from scratch, I gave them a pre-written program and asked them to make changes in order to create different outcomes. They worked in pairs, and I circulated around the room stamping their sheets as they accomplished each task. (The ♢♢ tasks require them to apply what they learned from the ♢ tasks.) Often there is more than one way to do each task.

trinket code


For more info on how to incorporate programming and computational physics into an introductory physics course, I highly recommend reading this article:

Chabay, R. & Sherwood, B. (2008) Computational physics in the introductory calculus-based course. American Journal of Physics, 76(4&5), pp. 307-313. pdf abstract

Chabay and Sherwood also gave a related talk at a recent AAPT meeting:

For folks looking to start with something slightly more advanced activity, I recommend this GlowScript tutorial for a particle bouncing around inside a box.

Day 42: Hoverpucks


(double period)

First period:

Bowling Ball Debrief #1-5 only on Whiteboards

–> 2 students still thought that an object in space would eventually slow down (“loses energy over time” , “loses force”) while other students rightly said that w/o friction it would keep moving.

So we played with the hoverpucks to TEST a hypothesis:

* If it was “losing force,” then it would slow down even in a frictionless environment.

Kids saw constant speed. I talked about how friction was like tiny mallet taps when the bumps in the floor and ball hit each other.

2nd Period:

Introduced Unit Notes sheet — a way to keep track of key concepts, ideas, equations, etc. from each activity.

Discussion Notes for Activity #1 Bowling ball & Mallet — speed up (tap same direction), slow down (tap opposite direction), steady speed (no taps -or- tap same-opposite), friction vs. no friction

Finished up the period by riding the large hovercraft!

Day 41: Last Day of the First Quarter


I have a bunch of quizzes, reassessments, and lab performance assessments to grade!

Days 39-40: Lab Performance Assessment


We spent these 2 days (3 periods) on a lab performance assessment. It was split into 2 parts: an individual portion and a group portion.

The individual portion had 3 tasks:

(1) Find the speed of a green buggy using a stop watch and meter stick;


(2) Find the speed of a green buggy using a motion detector and Lab Quest 2;


(3) Find the speed of a green buggy using video analysis in Logger Pro.

I had 4 stations set up for each of the 3 tasks. Students spent about 20 minutes at each station and rotated through. (The video for the video analysis task was pre-made by me.)

The group portion had 1 task: Design an experiment using a pull-back truck to find a mathematical model relating 2 variables. Students worked in groups of 3 and had 60 minutes to complete this task. They could graph their data by hand or use Desmos.


Half the class spent the first 60 minutes of the 3 periods rotating through the 3 individual tasks while the other half worked on the group task. Then they switched for the remaining 60 minutes.

Day 38: Collaborative Review Notes


As a unit review, and as a way to create some “formal notes” for students who have been asking for them, we did some collaborative whiteboarding, speed dating style. Each group was responsible for whiteboarding one of the following quadrants on this sheet:


The catch? They only had 2 minutes. At the end of the two minutes, the groups rotated to a different board. They then had another 2 minutes to add (and/or correct) information on the next board. As we rotated through, the boards slowly filled up. (If I had thought ahead, I would have assigned each group a different color marker, so it would be easy to track which groups made which edits on each board.)

Once every group has gotten to all the other boards and is now back to their starting board. Each group then presented their completed board to the class.


Day 37: My Collection of Voting Slides for Preconceptions in Mechanics

PiM Gdrive1

PiM Gdrive2

Today was a quiz day, and I forgot to take a picture of something interesting. But today I received a request on Twitter for all my voting slides for Preconceptions in Mechanics.

I shared these presentations last year, but they were part of individual posts and I hadn’t put them all in a single folder to share. And now is the time that folks are starting to teach Newton’s Laws. So, thanks to that tweet from Kim Freudenberg, I put all the slide decks into a single folder along with the Preconceptions in Mechanics book: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B4h2KfPMJ6ONNko5Sm9iVjZiWXM&usp=sharing Enjoy!


Day 36: Reteaching Electric Potential


YESTERDAY: The intro lesson on electric potential difference was a flop. I had students solve problems about moving particles in constant electric field for varying amounts of charge:

2015 APC Efields

2015 APC Efields (2)

Then I asked them to generalize for any amount of charge q:

2015 APC Efields (1)

and then tried to make the connection to this new quantity called electric potential difference. Big flop. It felt abstract and contrived.

AFTER CLASS: I dug into Knight’s books and Etkina’s book to see how they approached it. Both of them did potential first (not potential difference), and took a fields approach to potential. They drew parallels between the relationship between electric force/electric field and electric potential energy/electric potential. This seemed like the most natural approach for our class, since we’ve been rocking electric fields for weeks and just finished up electric potential energy.


TODAY IN CLASS: We talked about Knight’s conceptualization:



and Etkina’s (she goes a step further and literally calls electric potential the V-field):



And if electric potential can really be treated like a field, we need a way to visualize it. But it’s not a vector, so we can’t visualize it like we do electric fields. I talked about the concept of a scalar field (or “heat map”) and showed this map of air pressure in Europe:


We discussed what the colors meant and what the lines meant. (They all had Earth Science previously, so this wasn’t entirely new to them.) Then we looked at the PhET’s Charges and Fields simulation:


I think visualizing the V-field was really key, rather than taking the “work-based” approach I had done yesterday. The picture at the beginning of this post is a summary sheet of the discussion.



Day 34: Can You Hit The Roadrunner?

02 CA 2016 1-2 (2)

Students collected data for the lab challenge. We have several ramps of different steepness near my classroom. The roadrunner is played by a constant speed buggy. The boulder is played by a cart. The tripwire is really just a blue piece of tape. When the roadrunner crosses over the tape, the group releases their cart. During today’s data collection phase, the students do not know where the tripwire will be placed. Their job is to model the motion of the cart so that, when they find out where the tripwire will be, they can use their model to predict how far up the ramp to release the cart.

Here’s a nice clip to introduce the activity:

Day 33: Follow-up Graphing Game for Area = Displacement


Last week, students used motion detectors to test if the area of a velocity-time graph was equal to displacement for a variety of scenarios. However, Logger Pro did all the mathematical work for them. Today, students are using the graphs given by the Super Ultimate Graphing Challenge Game to calculate slopes and areas on their own. Then, they use the game to check their work. If they find that the area they calculated and the displacement shown in the game don’t match, they need to double check their work and then ask for help. I really like the self-checking nature of the activity. You can download a copy here: CA SuperUltimateGraphGame Displacement VT Graphs 2016 (PDF)