Science magazine honors web site that makes physics come alive

November 24, 2011

Physics professor Wolfgang Christian learned about the wonder of science when he was very young. Among the toys Christian's engineer father introduced to his son were electric trains, magnets, and lenses.

"A lot of my interest in came about through interactive engagement at home," says Christian.

This early education no doubt started Christian on a path toward becoming not only a scientist, but also someone who has played a central role in bringing interactive computer modeling to of all levels. His Open Source Physics , a valuable tool in physics education developed with colleagues Francisco Esquembre and Lyle Barbato, has been selected to win a Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).

Science magazine developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to promote the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in adverse conditions, into something new. Similarly, these winning projects can be seen as the seeds of progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Each month, Science publishes an article by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about Open Source Physics (OSP) will be published on November 25.

"We're trying to advance science education," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. "This competition provides much-needed recognition to innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each Web site will help guide educators around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed."

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The Roller Coaster simulation allows students to explore kinetic and potential energy in Earth’s gravitational field. Credit: Video courtesy of Wolfgang Christian

In 1979, not long after Christian earned his PhD from North Carolina State University and began his teaching career, he became a microcomputer enthusiast, joining a club that bought teletype machines at ham radio events and experimented with data acquisition. By 1986, Christian had established the first Ethernet network on the campus of Davidson College, where he still teaches, introducing microcomputer-based laboratories into the physics department. By 1991 Christian had begun working on employing computers throughout the curriculum and was using the Web to deliver curriculum materials to others. He says that during the first years of the Internet, if someone searched Davidson College, that search would lead directly to the physics department server.

"We were really early in adopting the Internet in 1992," Christian says.

The next big step toward the OSP project occurred when Christian stumbled on Java as a way to bring Internet-based interactive physics problems to upper-level students. He says he knew he "had a winner" in his use of Java, and he began showing how it worked at meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers, of which he is president-elect of the North Carolina Section, and the American Physical Society, of which he is a fellow and a past Forum on Education chair.

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The Heating and Cooling simulation allows students to explore a dynamic molecular model and the meaning of temperature. Credit: Video courtesy of Wolfgang Christian

While attracting the interest of major publishers who tied their physics textbooks to Christian's online materials, he stuck to a course that would make interactive computer modeling of physics available to students at earlier stages of their education, a direction that was greatly aided by Esquembre, who had developed Easy Java Simulations (ESJ). ESJ provided an intuitive tool for students who were not expert in Java. Without writing much code, physics students could manipulate the elements of a model, experiment with the effects of those manipulations, and learn firsthand about physics and its laws.

Christian is currently working toward involving K-12 students, such as his wife's middle-school students, who as seventh graders are learning about concepts such as temperature. Christian was able to adapt a college-level molecular dynamics simulation for them to explore changes in the phases of matter.

"The students could heat and cool the system, and then we could ask them questions like, 'At what temperature does it melt?'" Christian says. "They got visual feedback from the simulation and had to make decisions about the basic concepts."

The OSP Web site was designed by Barbato, who is the technical director of the ComPADRE Digital Library, which provides an infrastructure for the online dissemination of OSP materials. The Web site contains ready-to-run simulations and tools such as EJS and a video analysis program called Tracker. Although the site's ready-to-run simulations can be used to provide a deeper understanding of physics concepts, they are distributed with their source code and are intended to be modified by students and teachers. All are based on research-grade algorithms and can be adjusted and reconfigured easily using the free OSP code library and the EJS modeling tool.

"These ready-to-run simulations and tools for developing new simulations help students visualize situations and better understand abstract concepts," says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. "That is not always possible when learning physics through static pictures."

Christian explains how OSP allows students and teachers to adapt existing simulations and develop their own simulations as follows:

"You're running a simulation, and you want to change it, so you can just right-click," he says. "This action copies the code from within the running program into EJS, where you can change the packaged narrative, the internal parameters, and the algorithm to suit your teaching method and your student's abilities.

"We've essentially made programming accessible at a very early stage."

With about 20 percent of physics teachers aware of OSP, the Web site last year hosted about 500,000 page views and 50,000 downloads of simulations. Christians hopes that the SPORE award and the essay in Science will confer on OSP an additional layer of prestige, which will then bring in more users. "Once your signal gets above the noise," he says, "it tends to amplify itself."

Explore further: Gender bias found in student ratings of high school science teachers

More information: To visit Open Source Physics, go to

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