Trying out a new type of simulation-based pre-class assignment

I always had trouble picturing the ground state of the deBroglie model of the Hydrogen atom. Now I don’t!

At this past week’s Global Physics Department virtual meeting Noah Podolefsky spoke with us about PhET simulations. Noah’s best practice suggestion was to let students play around with a simulation for 5-10 minutes before asking them to do anything specific. And when you ask them to do something specific, to use open / investigative questions (e.g., “explore all things that affect pH”, as opposed to cookbook directions such as “set the acid concentration to 0.010 M…”).

I asked Noah

I’m wondering how you would suggest using these in pre-class (JiTT-style) assignments. If I am ultimately going to give them some sort of a question (could be nice and open like you suggest), I feel like most students will jump to try to answer the question without first doing the “free play”. Any suggestions on getting them to do “free play” first?

Noah suggested getting them to play around with the sim and generate 2-3 questions or screenshots of “cool things” that they found, which Brian Frank echoed by suggesting I do the same thing I did when I got my Quantum Mechanics class to generate questions based on a reading. Andy Rundquist also suggested I could get them to screencast their interesting discoveries (instead of just screencapping).

My Quantum Mechanics class is in the middle of developing the Hydrogen wavefunctions (I showed them the shooting method results for the angular wavefunctions last class, thanks Andy!).  We’re skipping our regular pre-class assignment this week, so I sent them a bonus pre-class assignment before we look at the Hydrogen spectrum on Monday. Here’s a slightly paraphrased version of what I asked them to do with the “Models of the Hydrogen Atom” PhET simulation:

Spend 5-10 minutes playing around with the simulation. Generate 3 items of interest — these could be any combination of questions that you have, interesting observations that you made or descriptions of things that the simulation made really clear to you that you didn’t quite get before. You can take screen captures, generate screencasts or just send me regular old text.

I’m really interested to see what they come up with. I will make sure to report back.  Just for fun, I have embedded the simulation below

Models of the Hydrogen Atom

Click to Run

5 Comments on “Trying out a new type of simulation-based pre-class assignment”

  1. We gave the PHYS 101 students at UBC a pre-lab assignment using the Faraday’s Law PhET sim. After a few questions to get them familiar with the generator tab (the one with the flowing water), we asked, “What settings make the lightbulb glow the brightest?” A follow-up on-line question asked “What parameters affect how much electricity is generated.” Students overwhelmingly recalled which ones mattered.

    In other words, we’ve had some success with getting them to find the most…, do the biggest…, make the smallest… And I know we got that idea from the folks at CU Boulder, maybe even Noah.

    • Joss Ives says:

      “What settings make the lightbulb glow the brightest?” definitely aligns with the type of questions that Noah suggests.

      I’m trying to figure out how to best support “free play” before getting to any questions. For example, having them generate the question “I wonder which things make the lightbulb glow the brightest” so that it is personally meaningful.

      And then after they have had a chance to do that, to be able to ask some follow-up questions. But many students will short-circuit that process and jump straight to the questions without having spent the free play time generating their own.

      I could always generate a web form that doesn’t give them goal-type questions until after they have already submitted their “items of interest”. That could be a way to accomplish both the free play and drawing their attention to the specific things that I want to follow-up on in class.

  2. […] I am right now. The first is my good friend Joss Ives. He’s really done some great thinking (and blogging!) about what he’d like students to do before coming to class. The second is mentioned in his […]

  3. Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    Have them find 3 cool things about a simulation? “Explore things that affect pH?” It almost sounds like you are trying to teach them how to be scientists!

    • Joss Ives says:

      Bret, good to have you back! It’s been great to see how deeply some of the students have engaged with this type of pre-class assignment. I’m going to get some student feedback on Wednesday after having tried it out with them twice, and I will report back on my overall observations with student ones included.

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