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Book by Davidson Professors Showcases Emerging Learning Method


Belloni and Christian
Assistant Professor Mario Belloni (l) and Professor Wolfgang Christian of the Physics Department.

November 28, 2000
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Academicians who publish books are usually hoping to contribute to the body of knowledge in their field. However, Davidson scientists Mario Belloni and Wolfgang Christian are hoping for much more.

Physlets®: Teaching Physics with Interactive Curricular Material describes for physics teachers an entirely new pedagogy for a first-year college curriculum, based on interactive computerized simulations they have been developing during the past few years.

Christian and Belloni believe that Physlets®, which are small computer programs simulating physics concepts, overcome many of the inadequacies of other multimedia learning methods because they are authentic, adoptable, and adaptable.

The publisher of the Physlets® book, Prentice-Hall, has incorporated Physlet®­based interactive problems into five of its textbooks and makes these problems freely available on the Internet to students and professors using those textbooks. The new book contains a selection of these problems as well as new problems written by the authors and their collaborators. The purpose of the Physlets® book is to provide instructors with all they need to know to start writing their own problems using Physlets®.

The CD that comes with the book includes 24 Physlet® programs that simulate phenomena such as the Doppler effect, optics, binary stars, the moment of inertia of solids, rocket propulsion, the conversion of kinetic energy to thermal energy, and refraction of light. In order to make authoring with these Physlets® easy, the book contains hundreds of ready-to-use Davidson class-tested examples, such as homework problems, classroom demonstrations, and laboratory exercises.

Christian emphasized that Physlets® represent a new teaching paradigm that finally takes advantage of technology. He commented, "Davidson and many other institutions have spent millions in wiring the campus and buying hardware and software, but how much impact has it really had on the education? Is it better, or just different? I donšt think the answer is yet known. But our experience and research shows that at least in the area of physics, Physlets® are helping students learn better."

Belloni explained that the key to making animations effective is to encourage students to interact with the activity. This can be done by having the students make measurements on the simulation, or by having them change variables to see how those changes produce different results. "By allowing students to see the effects as they change the input in a problem, the simulation enriches their understanding of it far more than if it is simply explained on a page of text," said Belloni. "The simulation gives them a better mental picture of physical systems, and increases their comprehension by putting them in control of the exercise."

A proponent of the system, Aaron Titus at NC A&T University, calls these types of exercises "media focused problems" as opposed to "multimedia" because physics is the focus rather than multimedia.

Another advantage of Physlets® is their adaptability. Since they are written in Java, which is compatible with HTML, they are accessible via any Web browser on any type of computer anywhere in the world. Users only have to familiarize themselves with a web browser, instead of learning a new type of software. Text that accompanies each Physlet® animation poses physics problems that students explore and seek to answer by making measurements on the animation. Material in the book explains for instructors the concepts each exercise addresses, and why students may have difficulty with it.

Teachers find Physlets® very adaptable, because they can select a single problem on an HTML page as part of their personal curriculum, rather than being forced to adopt a complete package. In addition, since Physlets® are written in JavaScript, teachers can edit the HTML and JavaScript to create a variation or an entirely new Physlet®-based activity from an existing one. A tutorial in the book section shows teachers how to publish their own curricular material on the Web.

Prentice-Hall is publishing Physlets® under a new paradigm for that company. In most cases, publishers of instructional books that incorporate educational software require that it be proprietary. However, Christian and Belloni recognized that the best way to encourage the adoption of interactive teachings methods in the physics community would be to maintain Physlets® as an open system that users could freely adapt and change.

Prentice-Hall granted that concession, leaving Physlets® free for educators to use individually in their own classrooms, but protected its own interests by retaining exclusive rights to use the material in the higher education commercial market.

Alison Reeves, executive editor for the publisher's physics and astronomy list, explained that the arrangement pays off for Prentice-Hall because Physlets® are incorporated into its five physics textbooks and their associated web sites. "If teachers are familiar with Physlets® and like them, then it is an added value and convenience to have them in customized websites to go with our books. Professors can go to Christian's site and create their own set of Physlets® and associated problems for their course, but we have already done that work for them."

Christian points to hard evidence that Physlets® are taking hold in the physics community of approximately 10,000 instructors in high schools and colleges around the country. The book had 2,200 back orders before it was published, and Prentice-Hall market research showed that at least 20% of US instructors were aware of Physlets® via workshops, advertisements, and the Just-in-Time Teaching book. Christian and Belloni also spread the word personally and widely through regular presentations at professional meetings.

Christian has been developing interactive physics software for almost a decade, and has created dozens of Physlets® with his own Davidson students. Their work has won several top awards in an annual software contest sponsored by Computers in Science and Engineering magazine. Christian received the only grand prize ever awarded by the journal's predecessor publication, Computers in Physics. This year was no exception, with Christian and recent graduate Jim Nolen winning a prize for their "Reflection Physlet," which models resonance and interference effects as waves pass through various layers of materials.

Belloni, an assistant professor in the department, has been working on the project for two years, primarily in the area of curricular material. Christian, Belloni, and departmental colleague Larry Cain have recently received a Teaching with Technology Fellowship from the Associated Colleges of the South to extend their ideas to upper-level courses by developing interactive Physlet® material for a class in quantum mechanics.

Christian said the future of Physlets is bright, mainly because the idea builds on the strength and ideals of the World Wide Web. "The most important aspect of Physlets® is the way they facilitate sharing," he said. "As the community of Physlet® curriculum authors grows, the value of learning how to use them and modify them will grow factorially. The Web allows an unlimited number of people to become involved in their use and construction, and that will build the activity of teaching physics as a community activity. We will learn from each other and, by sharing our work, help improve both our own teaching and the teaching throughout the physics community."

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by "U.S. News and World Report" magazine.

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