At Jakarta Intercultural School, 10th grade marks the move from general to specialized science. Physics A is a semester-long 10th grade course that covers the basic ideas of motion and forces in order to prepare them for either IB or AP sciences. In a nutshell, my course 5 project will be to integrate an open-source ‘sandbox’ physics engine, Algodoo, into the Physics A course.

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As a biology-turned-chemistry-now-turning-physics teacher, it may seem an unusual choice to select it for my COETAIL Course 5 final project efforts, but there are 3 main reasons I chose this class:

  • The course is academically well defined. I won’t need to worry about the nuts and bolts of the syllabi. After teaching it once, I discovered that the pacing is well thought-out. The resources, while a bit dated, are all present and thorough (including answer keys!) Finally, the labs are solid with most of the wrinkles already ironed out. I can just focus on making it better.
  • The course is sorely lacking technology in several forms. We do use some ‘physics-specific tech’ (i.e. photogates, motion sensors, etc.), but we don’t really use much in the way of “general tech” (i.e. simulations, social media, collaboration). This is probably a result of the history of the course–it is classic “old-school” and has been taught in previous years by very talented teachers, but definitely from a sage-on-the-stage mindset. It revolves around packet, lecture and experiments.
  • The discovery of Algodoo. Paul Browne found this software and upon messing around with it for just a few seconds, I thought, this is what I’ve been looking for! It is open source, ‘game-like’ (though not technically a game), and from a physics-standpoint, it is amazingly accurate. It allows redefinition to occur in multiple dimensions. Want to make an object that weighs 500,000 kg and push it off a cliff? Go ahead. Want it to smash into a glass cube? No problem. How about doing it with moon-like gravitational conditions, and plotting speed, acceleration, or momentum in real time? Not only can students do things that were previously impossible, they can easily share their creation with others around the world.

The unit planner is below:

My main concerns about integrating Algodoo are:

  • Throwing a wrench into a relatively well-oiled machine. Physics A has a long history of preparing kids well for IB and AP physics, and it has done so without Algodoo’s help for many years. I am definitely fixing something that isn’t technically broken.
  • Taking the focus off the physics and putting too much of it on the program. Algodoo, like all powerful systems, is sophisticated and nuanced, and learning how to use the program will take a significant amount of time. I am hoping that the time ‘lost’ to learning the program will be worthwhile. On the flip side of this, I believe a lot of important learning occurs when people are learning to interact with an new program (ISTE Standard “Transfer current knowledge to learning of new technologies”). I am not just teaching physics!
  • I am still a bit unsure as to the best way to integrate the program. My leading idea is this:
    • Model the use of the program throughout the course, giving short work sessions where students try making simple ‘scenes’ for themselves. Towards the end of the unit, once the physics have become more complex, give them one major assignment, and give them several short chunks of time to work on it in class, as well as requiring work outside of class. I would like to somehow integrate Algobox, a forum where people upload their scenes. Towards the end of the course, the students will make a screencast, publish to YouTube and we will spend one class doing peer feedback.
  • What will I cut? Something’s got to go. This might seem like sacrilige to my fellow science-teachers, but I believe we could actually reduce the amount of time spent on some of the labs, in particular the ‘circus’ type labs where students do a series of simple experiments. I believe that sometimes, “less is more” with experiments–i.e. do fewer of them, but really get all you can out of them.

The most obvious new skill this unit will require is software specific. Fortunately, Algodoo was designed by a Swedish physicist, and relies heavily on icons, sliders, and drag-and-drop. It is very popular in Europe and Japan, with Japanese students using the program in its native “English only” format. This is evidence that it is relatively intuitive.

More importantly, the shift in attitude will be more challenging. I’m not serving students a pre-made learning experience. Science teachers have used simulations in class for years, but they are always designed by someone else to show the learner something. In other words, the learner is the receiver, not the creator. This series of assignments will require students to make the simulation. That’s pretty meta! The learners will have to ask questions like, “What principal/law/concept am I trying to demonstrate?” , “How can I adjust these parameters to more clearly demonstrate the intended principal?”, “What graph would most clearly prove my point?

I am actually really excited about this project and I believe it will be successful to some degree even on its first iteration. Students respond very positively to Algodoo–it’s undeniably fun. The changes to the course are well-needed. The trick is going to be finding the right model to integrate the program. I need to reach out and find other physics teachers using Algodoo, though so far my Twitter pleas have gone unanswered. I’m choosing to take this as a sign that I am either breaking some new ground here, or (perhaps more likely) I need to find more physics teachers to follow!