Vassar Stories

The Physics Classroom of the Future

When Adam Warner ’17 was in high school, most of his classmates thought physics was either too hard, too boring, or both. He’s spending the summer on the Vassar campus finding ways to make learning physics more enjoyable. Warner and physics lecturer David Rishell are creating what they call the “physics classroom of the future,” a project funded through the college’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute.

Physics lecturer David Rishell and his URSI fellow Adam Warner ’17 are creating an interactive, digital curriculum to teach physics. Photo by Buck Lewis

“The goal is to create an interactive physics classroom, with animation and other multimedia tools,” says Rishell.

Warner, who plans to teach physics in high school after he graduates, says he applied for the URSI program specifically to work on the project with Rishell. “Since this is what I want to do for a profession, it was right up my alley,” he says. One of Warner’s tasks is converting traditional physics experiments -- such as hurling projectiles at various angles –- to narrated animation that students can access on their iPads or smart phones.

Warner has already developed a prototype for animating several kinds of experiments and expects to create several others before the URSI project ends in August. The full interactive physics curriculum probably will not be in place at Vassar until 2016, Rishell says, but he’s impressed by how much Warner has accomplished so far. “I just give Adam the basic idea of what I’m looking for and he goes out and solves the problem,” he says.

Teachers can use the multimedia tools in several ways, Rishell says. He envisions having students read material he’ll cover in an upcoming lecture and have them take quizzes on that material using interactive software on their iPads. He can then scan the results of the quiz to determine which aspects of the lesson they grasped easily and which they may need help understanding. “After I see the results, I can adjust the content of my lecture accordingly,” Rishell says.

Warner is spending part of his time analyzing studies by experts in the field that show how the right kind of interactive classroom can improve student performance. He says the data only reinforces the importance of the work he’s doing this summer. “My own high school classes were static – they confirmed the negative reputation physics had as being dull and difficult,” he says. “These multimedia tools make it more fun.”

Rishell credits Cindy Schwarz, chair of the physics and astronomy department, with spearheading the move toward more interactive teaching and learning. “Cindy has been at the forefront of this movement for several years, and with the opening of the renovated Sanders Physics building next year, we’ll have a lot more of the tools available to make this conversion,” he says.

New work stations in the renovated physics building will be able to connect experiments done in the classroom to students’ iPads so they can re-run them back in their dorms when they’re doing their homework.

Warner says he’s glad to be taking an active role in that conversion. “It feels good to be creating a new way of learning, not just for Vassar students, but for college and high school students everywhere.”

Rishell says the research Warner is doing this summer may be useful to firms that design and create interactive software for physics courses, “so we’re keeping in touch with some of them and giving them some of our suggestions for packages they may want to offer.”

He emphasizes that while making the physics classroom of the future more interactive may enable teachers to present material in a more palatable way, it should be viewed as just one part of a teacher’s arsenal: “Interactive models can help students learn, but they’re not a miracle cure. A good lecture by a good teacher is also effective.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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