Places We've Seen

In these pages, we present work in progress on a project to use computers and network-based tools to teach fundamentals of science to undergraduate students. Our project is based on a successful two-semester course, Science for the 21st Century, which offers freshmen and sophomores an opportunity to learn about the science behind topics of great current interest, such as Pseudoscience and the Scientific Method, Energy, Global Climatic Changes, The Science of Imaging, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Mind and Machine, and Health and Biology.

Currently, we use the Web for course administration and as a resource center for homework assignments and students' term projects (see the Phy106 page for example). A few students elected to present their projects on the Web. Most topics that are taught in the course are available for exploration on the Web. We have put together several ``modules''; their defining characteristic is the use of hyperlinks to take the reader to appropriate material residing elsewhere. We have completed the task of making use of the most obvious strengths of computers and networks (ease of storage and updating, distributed resources, etc.); now we want to take up the challenge of making these tools more engaging.

In the exploratory work sponsored by the NSF Course and Curriculum Development Program, we assembled a team of faculty (Gianfranco Vidali, P.I., Simon Catterall, Alan Middleton, Edward Lipson, Geoffrey Fox) and graduate students (David McNamara, Scott McGuire, Bayar Dambasuren) who have been involved in developing and teaching the course and/or are expert in computer and network technology. Our task is to design, prototype and test the use of new interactive technologies in the classroom. Let us look at some examples.

 Suppose that you want to teach the laws of planetary motion. What is the trajectory that a planet follows around a star? Is its speed constant? What's the direction of the force that keeps the planet moving around the star? What happens if gravity is turned off? What trajectory and speed will the planet take? Some will have no problem in answering these questions; others might elect to solve the equations of motion, if necessary. But for non-science majors, coming up with the correct answers requires a strong grasp of physical laws, since sometimes one's mental picture of how Nature works is physically incorrect.

We want to help students visualize common physical phenomena and present them with an opportunity to tweak the conditions under which those phenomena occur, in the hope that a deeper understanding than rote memorization will result.

For example, suppose that we are interested in studying the trajectory of a planet orbiting the Sun. One of Kepler's laws says that the trajectory is an ellipse. Apart from memorizing this statement, we can get a deeper grasp only if we start asking a few questions. Is the speed of the planet constant? (We have an applet from which you can find out.) If not, is there a law that describes it? (It happens to be Kepler's second law and we have an applet for that too.) A visualization of such a law usually leaves a lasting impression in one's mind.

 We are working with Java applets and Web tools to deliver to the user the capability of running simulations of physical phenomena under the user's complete control. Java applets are programs delivered, typically through the Net, with the help of a Web browser, such as Netscape. They run on the user's computer (client-side); in the more sophisticated programs, like the ones we are developing, the user has the freedom to start/stop the animation and to specify the initial conditions.

Some of the applets are designed to be used interactively with other users. Using a newly developed collaborative technology from NPAC, called Tango, each user shares the applet or applets with other users. For example, the teacher might ask a student to draw the trajectory of a planet after gravity is turned off . The student will draw it on his/her computer with the mouse and the answer will be broadcast to the teacher and other students. A discussion can then ensue, either verbally, if the participants are in the same room, or through voice and ``chat room'' tools if the users are in different location.