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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 46: Buffet Quiz


College-Prep Physics: Today was our “Buffet Quiz” — one last chance to demonstrate mastery on this quarter’s standards. Check out this student’s improvement!

Day 45: Shoot For Your Grade


AP Physics C: Predict the landing point of a ball rolling down and off of an elevated incline. (Note: We haven’t studied rotational energy yet. So their prediction will be further than the actual landing point. That’s part of my plan to motivate our study of rotation.)

One group got resourceful and starting looking for help online. I thought my trick was going to be ruined, but when they did their calculations, they ignored the rotational energy term that was in the graphic they found. *whew*


After taking measurements and grinding through their calculations, they put their target on the floor and held their breath as the ball rolled down and off the ramp.


Yep. They were off  by about half a length of paper.

“What’s going on? Were we supposed to account for friction? Air resistance? Did the mass actually matter?”

So I rolled a few other things off the ramp. The first being 3 steel balls of different sizes (front row in picture below).



And the all landed in exactly the same spot as the original ball. It was really amazing.

Then I rolled one of the hollow metal balls (back row, center). And it landed shorter.

“Wait, let me try that again.”

Still short. Then I rolled the hollow yellow ball and the ring. Both short.


Then I rolled the black disk. That landed between the other landing points.

Now everyone is thoroughly perplexed.  I love rotation!

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices
#5. Using mathematics and computational thinking


Day 36: Scientific Mini-Posters


I’m out of school again today, so here are some photos I’ve saved for the occasion. One of my science colleagues has her AP Biology students make and present scientific mini-posters for one lab each quarter. I love this idea and ties in nicely with the student-designed lab experiments my students do for their midterm and final projects. I’m considering having students do a mini-poster next quarter instead of a formal lab report. (Well, both are quite similar, but the mini posters can be displayed around the room and in the halls.)




Day 34: Gravity Field Trip!


All Physics Classes: The 2 other physics teachers and I organized a field trip to see the movie Gravity in IMAX 3D at the local theater. We arranged for a special showing and had the entire theater to ourselves — 260 students, 26 parents, 4 teachers, 1 assistant principal, and 6 bus drivers!

The trip was a huge success — due entirely to our awesome students and their parents.

And the movie was AMAZING. I highly recommend it.

Day 178: Goodbye, Mr. G.


Today was our last day of school. And sadly, we said goodbye to David Gewanter, who is retiring after teaching physics at John Jay for the past 7 years. It’s been great working with David. His friendship and mentorship have been invaluable both to faculty and students. He is an accomplished educator and gentleman, who has made a positive impact on the John Jay community. He introduced a new science elective, Environmental Physics, and organized field trips to CERN over school breaks. His students designed passive solar houses and studied the thermodynamics of clothing (which culminated in sleeping outside for a whole night). He taught life lessons in addition to physics, always ready with a funny or heartfelt story from his many adventures.

I’m not very good with goodbyes, so… Goodbye, David. We’ll miss you.

Postscript: Why only 178 days and not 180? After Hurricane Sandy and the winter snowstorms, we lost two days that we were unable to makeup. Have a great summer, everyone! See you in September!