Using the Web in Undergraduate Physics Courses

Edward Sternin, CAP'96, Monday, June 17, 1996


[Spider's Web]

World-Wide Web: the "killer application" of the 90's

Web browser runs on your workstation computer
Usually, as smart as your hardware will allow it to be, may play sounds and movies, show high-quality pictures, allow you to receive and send electronic mail, or even to send and receive real-time sound (aka phone calls over Internet)

Usually, free e.g., Netscape Navigator

Web servers are everywhere!
Searching for things and people, news and movie stars, buying pizza or used car parts, and, of course, excellent instructional materials

Server is a selector of information, and this is seen as the essential service in an age of information overload. It really pays to have the information customized to your needs. Ergo, a good server is not necessarily a provider of information, but a provider of pointers to other sources of information. Of course, it could be both.

Servers often provide information free, but this is where the "content providers" see their income coming from in the future, and some commercialization is already taking place!

URL = Universal Resource Locator, a pointer to something
Best seen through examples:

Other types of URLs may open up an interactive computer session, or examine the "gopher" space (a text-only predecessor of the Web), etc.

Web information is different from what we are used to!

Since the Web is a living and growing body of knowledge, our expectations of what we can achieve on the Web must change. One way is to use a sort of "fuzzy logic", only following the flow of information very loosely and approximately - surfing the Web - until we hit exactly what we are looking for. There are always multiple ways to get to virtually any piece of information on the Web, some completely unforeseen by the creators of that information, so it needn't always make sense.

Someone once compared the Web with a library where all the books have been pulled down and scattered around the floor. True, but then a clever spider has linked all the loose pages in multiple ways, and we have a fast tool (a computer) to explore this intricate Web. Not a bad tradeoff!

As always, good sleuthing techniques help! Some of the information comes in a subtle form; for example, by sliding the cursor across highlighted Web links one can sometimes see that a particular link needn't be followed.


Why are we interested?

The Web forces upon us an excellent learning style
We must be life-long learners of Physics. Students at some times, teachers at others, we know that our success depends on continuously improving ourselves, keeping up, conveying to "junior learners" the excitement and the reward of such striving to improve. It is the process of learning, the skill of solving problems, not the problems per se that matter.

The Web is attractive to the Nintendo generation
We hope to reach those who over the years of "training" learned to instinctively reach for a remote control to mute a "boring" lecture. It is an uphill battle: Physics requires a certain effort and a mental discipline that is often not there. This ability to think - and not the "facts" of Physics - is the hardest thing to teach, but it is the most important. The Web offers us an opportunity to hook those who may think that Physics is not the most fun thing in the world.

The Web is a cost-effective teaching tool
Amazingly, what is right - active learning style, skill reinforcement, unobtrusive low-pressure guidance, maintaining a sense of discovery - all these difficult-to-implement instructional methods become relatively easy and cost-effective to implement on the Web.

The Web is truly World-Wide, and is a great equalizer
The commercial side of the Web is growing rapidly, yet by and large, the Web is an outgrowth of a world-wide academic community with a strong tradition of sharing the information freely. This tradition continues, and there is a huge - and growing daily - body of shared knowledge, of tools and resources that can be quickly and freely obtained from the Web, and used for your specific purposes. And if you have written the best little applet (a Web program) in the world to illustrate the ideal gas law, it makes no difference whether you come from a large research University or a small private college.


What is out there, and is it good?

Prepackaged materials

** fun@learning.physics by Mark Sutherland at the University of Toronto
An excellent integrated electronic textbook on Dynamics, with many imbedded movies and interactive applets. A particular choice of the file format (Adobe Acrobat) may not be all that popular at the moment, but this may change. Provides a tightly integrated package, and is difficult to pull apart to re-use its pieces in your own course. Excellent Java applets.

** Computational Science Education Project
A pioneering effort, primarily intended for upper-year University students. A very successful and rich electronic book, with chapters and case studies contributed by various authors from around the world.

* Fundamentals of Physics, by Halliday, Resnick, and Walker.
The prime calculus-based course now comes in a CDROM interactive edition, put out by J.Wiley and commercially priced. Very clever, with well-integrated movies, sound, possibility of making personal "margin notes", comes complete with a pocket book for marking off the subjects covered in class. Intends to replace the paper edition of the book, a completely unrealistic expectation for most of the students. Interesting - but too expensive - as a supplementary material.

* Dynamic Physics by Alan Van Heuvelen, The Ohio State University
Produced and published by Addison Wesley, it is intended as a supplement to their general physics textbooks. They must make money on these, so the way they package the material is for sale to individuals, to be run on their personal computers (Mac or PC). Some of the ideas are great, and would lend themselves nicely to implementation on the Web. In fact, their promotional slide show is all done as a Web page.

Specific courses and collections served on the Web

** TIPTOP VLAB - The Internet Pilot To Physics
A recent international cooperative effort at creating a rich resource centre for physicists and Physics teachers. Their Virtual LABoratory in particular is the ever-growing collection of publicly available applets, each of which could be made into a centerpiece of a lesson/lab/tutorial session. Their attitude is just right, their content is still developing, but coming on strong.

** Superposition of two waves
An excellent example of what an interactive Java applet can be. One could build a set of tutorial questions and tests around an applet like this, or use it as a live illustration during a lecture.

** Physics Education Group at Kansas State University.
Powered mostly by the enthusiasm of Dean Zollman, home of the Physics InfoMall. Also, two KSU courses served up, including practice tests with grades reported to the students, Mac/PC illustrative software. A site to watch, as it seems to change rapidly.

* Several courses, Department of Physics, Purdue University
Course outlines, tests, homeworks, logs of student-professor email exchanges on homework. Mostly administrative use, with the exception of Physics 152.

* Physics/Math 419, Classical mechanics, from Jorge Pullin at Penn State University
Assignments (TeX) and tutorials (Mathematica) online, not much original Web development

* World Lecture Hall
An index of online course materials, by subject. An interesting Physics collection, some links stale.

** A collection of QM simulations, by Hiromi Natori and John L. Richardson
Numerical solutions of 1D and 2D Schrödinger equation, spectacular visuals (MPEG movies and one Java applet).

Java used to display math formulas, from the Geometry Center at the University of Minnesota
Inability to display complex mathematical formulas is arguably the biggest limitation of the current crop of Web viewers. This applet is one way to overcome this limitation.

A directory of Physics Education Resources, from North Caroline State University
NCSU does have an active group working in Physics Education research, but this server has become stale

Using WWW to Augment University Courses, a comment by Phillip J. Windley, Brigham Young University.
Based on his experiences teaching two computer science course, augmented via the Web.


What we do here at Brock

The Web, with its graphical capabilities and its up-to-the-minute information, is a godsend for our most popular service course (almost 400 non-science majors). Especially since 1995/96 has been a year of the comet Hyakutake, of major new discoveries by the repaired Hubble telescope - such as the M16 nebula, the greatest star nursery known to us, and views of Neptune and of a storm on Saturn of previously unseen detail and quality. Pictures released by NASA in early March were shown in an Astronomy class the very next day, before the evening news and glossy magazine spreads. Astronomy 1F00 brought the frontiers of science to class.

Introductory Physics
In a first (and for some, the only) Physics class, we try to put the emphasis on structure, trying to help the students organize their thinking and their work. Two overhead projectors allow the instructor to continuously show the outline of the course and associated materials as computer overheads, while the derivation and discussion take place on the other screen. Since the text of the problems and examples being discussed, and all the pertinent diagrams are always available on the Web, even outside the classroom, the students are not afraid to spend less time copying things down, more time thinking.

Here's a list of the Web-served materials for the course:

Using computers in the lab
Extensive use of on-line materials for all software used throughout the Physics program minimizes instructor involvement and provides an online reference source that can be used in later years. For example, all second-year Physics majors spend their first lab period on our self-paced Web tutorial on physica, a public-domain data analysis and plotting program. They use it to analyse their data and to prepare the lab reports from then on, a pattern that over the last few years extended into the graduate program and into research work.

Here's a partial list of computing-related materials served on our Web site. The Web provides a convenient common interface.

A full list of Brock's on-line course materials


Lessons we have learned

Getting to use the Web as a teaching tool is easy!
One can be up and running in only a few hours (see How to write for the Web below).

Incremental approach is crucial to prevent instructor burnout.
We've been working on the Web support for our first-year algebra-based course for a couple of years now. The first time around in a course we prepared the formula sheet and the overhead summary pages, the following year we added figures and examples, next year we plan to add Java applets and to center some tutorial and lab sessions around the topics illustrated by these.

Provide quick feedback to the students
We have not been doing this, and the students tell us we must. Some experience shows that the students do better when their progress (e.g. their up-to-the-minute standing in the class) monitored by a computer: they perceive it as more impersonal, more fair.

Make the Web use mandatory
A step we have been reluctant to take, but others have reported that it is necessary to overcome the student inertia. A precondition for this is that the Web material for the course is sufficiently rich and inviting, and that questions are answered quickly. Only then the added Web component is seen as a benefit by the students, not as a drag.

Have useful & attractive "anchor" locations in your Web materials
The vastness of the Web is intimidating. We must create an illusion of a smaller, "cosier" community, where students come first, and then give them a rich set of other paths to take. Our current plans are to use theme-based "units" where an interactive Java applet, its associated text, on-line tutorial questions, and a student-instructor question-and-answer interaction all come together.

Avoid being (or appearing) stale
...or your risk "been there, seen this". The best sites seem to be the ones that have weekly special events.

Avoid changing everything all the time
...or your risk losing the timid part of the student audience.

Get students involved as early and as much as possible
Let them tell you what works and what does not. Collecting a course evaluation questionnaire at the end of term is too little, too late. If Web use/access is widespread an on-line Web-based course evaluation form could be used several times throughout the course to provide a more immediate feedback (samples: form, summary).

Consider, for example, this report by a first-year B.Sc.-B.Ed. student. Some things suggested in it could have been in place this year, we simply never thought of them.

Our jobs are safe for now
Despite wild claims to the contrary, a face-to-face interaction remains crucial. The Web does not decrease the amount of work a student needs to put in. It does not replace a pen-and-paper, hard-work solution to a problem. It provides an additional tool, a reinforcement for other ways of learning.

Do not get seduced by the dark side of the Web
Computers will happily absorb as much time as one is willing to give them. Self-discipline and strict adherence to a simple well-structured writing style can help.

There is always yet another pretty picture or a neat gizmo to add; focus on what you are trying to accomplish.


Pointers for further browsing...

Searching the Web

How to write for the Web


This page is:
Last reviewed by: on 10-Apr-01 at 15:36
© 1996 Edward Sternin, Physics Department, Brock University