The best way to teach physics to video-game-crazed middle schoolers is to make the class a little more like a video game. That was the premise behind a revised physics curriculum created this summer by two Vassar physics majors, two studio art majors, and an incoming freshman.
Under the guidance of physics professor Cindy Schwarz, the students used animated astronauts, cavemen, construction workers, bugs, cars, and paper airplanes to illustrate basic scientific principles in the comprehensive curriculum. Alexandra Trunnell ’17, a declared physics and astronomy major, and physics major Teddy Stanescu ’16 supplied the scientific expertise, while art majors Sam Faber-Manning ’16 and Jerry Kindig ’15 created the characters, using recently designed animation software to bring them to life. Luis Serazo ’18, who plans to major in physics or math, pitched in on all phases of the project, which was funded through Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute and the Diving into Research program.
Trunnell gave a presentation on the new curriculum Oct. 11 at a conference of the New York, New Jersey and New England Sections of the American Association of Physics Teachers at Siena College in Loudonville NY. Schwarz had been scheduled to give the talk but decided it made more sense to have Trunnell do it. “I was basically going to use a lot of the stuff Alex and her team did this summer for my presentation, so I figured it was better to have her give the talk,” Schwarz says. “And the reception she got was incredible.”
Trunnell says she was a bit nervous as she began her talk before a crowd of experienced physics teachers, but as she ran some of the animated experiments on a video screen, “it was fun to watch the audience begin to understand what we were doing and how we had done it.”
Trunnell and her team are continuing to work on the project during the school year, re-tooling the curriculum for high school and college students while retaining many of the animated characters they used for the middle school students. “We think demonstrating scientific principles using a caveman playing mini golf is something that resonates for students from fifth grade right through college,” she says.
Kindig and Faber-Manning say their main challenge was grasping some of the scientific concepts they would be illustrating through the characters they created. “A lot of our time initially was asking the physics students, ‘Does this work for the physics you’re teaching?’ Faber-Manning says.
Kindig says he never doubted the art majors and science majors would be able to collaborate successfully. “We were all in the same room all the time and we just kept talking to each other, and eventually we figured it out,” he says.
Schwarz was particularly impressed with how fast the students solved problems they encountered. “They took the animation software to places it was never engineered to go,” she says. “And one day I walked into the room where they were working, and the artists were high-fiving the physics people. That’s the kind of atmosphere this project has had since we started.”
Schwarz says she is looking forward to seeing how middle school teachers use the new curriculum, which was designed to address new science standards for middle schools across the country. She says it will be particularly helpful to school districts where the middle school teachers are looking for help with teaching the new material. “Many middle school teachers are not very comfortable with the physical sciences, especially physics,” she says.
Serazo says he was gratified to have taken part in such an important project before he ever took his first course at Vassar. “Learning to work with this new software and to collaborate with Vassar students who were interested in art as well as science was a great way to begin my time at Vassar,” he says.
Stanescu says working on the project is spurring some new academic interests. “I’ve never taken a computer course, but what we did this summer made we want to audit some courses in the Computer Science Department,” he says.
The cross-pollination didn’t stop there, Schwarz says. “The physics majors told me they plan to take an art course, and the art students may venture into some physics courses, especially those for non majors, such as A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo or The Limits of the Universe and the Limits of Understanding,” she says.