More Computational Physics Education Research Please

posted by Todd Zimmerman, University of Wisconsin-Stout on

Before you read any further, stop and answer the following question for yourself: Where does computation fall in the experimental physics/theoretical physics paradigm?

As an undergrad I know I viewed the computer as a fancy calculator that fell firmly in the theoretical physics side of things.  You could plug numbers into equations, graph the analytical solutions, and if you asked in just the right way and got lucky, you could get it to solve a particularly unpleasant integral. As a grad student I started using computers to collect and analyze data.  I viewed this as very distinct from the role the computer played in theoretical physics.  The computer was a multi-purpose tools that did separate but slightly related tasks.

When I started teaching, I used simulations in my class and it wasn't until I started using simulations during lab time that I started to suspect that computers may have a larger role in physics than I previously thought.  When I first heard about the Faculty Development Workshop put on by the Partnership for Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP), I knew I had to attend. At the workshop I experienced a Kuhnian-shift when they introduced the idea of the three-legged stool - physics rests upon the three legs of theory, experiment, and computation. 

All of the pieces popped together in my mind when I heard this - computation isn’t just a tool, it’s a way of tackling problems. After this revelation I started scouring the research journals to see what the best practices are or in hopes of find an FCI-for-computation.  There doesn't seem to be.

Early PER research showed that lecture did not serve the role most educators thought it did, prompting the shift to more active learning.  Recent research has shown that labs do not serve the role of helping students understand concepts in the way we had assumed, asking us to reexamine our learning objectives for labs.

My big fear now is what misconceptions do we have towards the role computation should play in education? I believe students benefit from modeling systems of particles on a computer, but does it really help them understand the related concepts?  If the research on lab experiments is any indicator probably not. I believe learning to break a problem down and solve it algorithmically is beneficial. I know it helps me understand complicated problems, but I’m not my students. 

I’ve got a lot of questions about computers in the physics class room and I'm desperate for answers. It's in the early days answering these questions about the role of computers in learning physics but this looks to be an area that is ripe with interesting and important research questions. I hope you will hear my plea and consider taking a swing at some of these problems in your research.

Tags: computation physics education  research areas  

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