Student collision mini-projects from my fall comp-phys course

This past fall I had a revelation which I have yet to harness, but it is hiding out in my brain waiting to be incorporated into future courses. In two of my courses, I had the students work on mini-projects. This was the first time I had used mini-projects in a course and I was delighted with how independent the students were as compared to an overly prescribed task and I was also delighted with the quality of their work as compared to work from the regular prescribed tasks. Later in this post I have shared some videos of the comp-phys mini-projects, but I want to discuss a few things first.

In my digital electronics labs course they were asked to take the input from an analog sensor, apply some electronic decision-making to this input and provide some digital output related to the input. An example is to use a photoresistor to monitor room brightness and use 3 different colours of LED to provide feedback related to the room brightness: a red LED is lit if the room is dark, a yellow LED is lit if the room is of “standard” brightness and a green LED is lit if the room is extremely bright.

In my comp-phys course they were asked to make a collision simulation using Mathematica or Python where there has to be at least 3 different parameters which can be manipulated by the user (e.g., mass, velocity, coefficient of restitution, type of object) and at least one challenging piece of physics in the simulation (e.g., rolling friction, coefficient of restitution which varies between 0 and 1). Examples ideas that I provided included the ballistic pendulum or a 2D collision where you have to worry about the angle of attack.

In both cases, the task was designed to be something which should take approximately one week of the regular time that they are expected to put into the course. In both cases I had some small-in-scope expectations related to the documentation/presentation of the mini-project.  For the digital mini-project, I asked them to submit a complete circuit diagram and a brief video of them walking me through how the mini-project works. For the comp-phys mini-project, I asked for well-documented code and a brief document which highlighted the physics being  simulated and explained how it was implemented in the code.

Before I share the comp-phys mini-projects from the fall, I want to share an “in no particular order” list of things that I liked about the mini-projects above what I would see from a regular prescribed task or series of tasks:

  1. The students seemed much more willing to take on larger challenges with less support.
  2. The students were provided with the opportunity to bring some creativity into their work. There seems to be very few of these opportunities in most physics programs.
  3. The quality of student work was consistently higher than usual and competition played a small role in this. With the comp-phys mini-projects, students would show up to class and see what others had done and decide they had to step up their game by adding more bells and whistles than they had originally intended.
  4. The students had a lot more ownership of the learning task.

I suspect that Andy has seen a lot of these benefits since switching to SBG. A lot of the student submissions for standards that I have seen from his courses seem to involve some creativity and students taking on larger challenges that would normally be expected. The scope of those standards tends to be smaller than the mini-projects I am talking about here, but my experience with mini-projects certainly helps me appreciate even more how powerful SBG can be in terms of giving the students some choice in how they show their proficiency.

Mini-project playlist

Below is a playlist of no-audio videos of the 10 mini-projects from the comp-phys course. Each of them is in the neighborhood of 30 seconds long of me playing around with the various controls and then running the simulation one or two times. Some of them were done by groups. They’re pretty tiny in the embedded player so I would suggest going full-screen.

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9 Comments on “Student collision mini-projects from my fall comp-phys course”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    These are great projects! It’s so cool how they made the goal and painted the lines. I would imagine they really learned a lot working on these.

    I would agree that these projects are larger than a typical standard of mine, and so now you’ve got me thinking of ways I could use something like this. I would guess you saw more creativity, on average, than what I see because of the length.

    • Joss Ives says:

      One thing that I noticed is that the students found these mini-projects to be exhausting. They seemed to be the exact right size that the students were intensely focused on them for a relatively short amount of time. Due to this intensity, it would take some careful planning and a lot of student feedback to turn a course into a sequence of mini-projects, but I suspect there is a sweet spot between mini-projects of this scope and your standards where this might be possible.

      I was amazed at the creativity that I saw and the quality of the work (both courses). It was certainly much higher than I would have anticipated when I first put the tasks together.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    These really are great projects.

    “make a collision simulation using Mathematica or Python where there has to be at least 3 different parameters”

    “take the input from an analog sensor, apply some electronic decision-making to this input and provide some digital output related to the input.”

    Were these basically the entire prompts for the projects?

    • Joss Ives says:

      Yes and no. The prompts were barely more detailed than what I described in this post and then I provided some examples to orient them a bit. One more advantage that I forgot to mention was that the prompts seemed to narrow the scope down to just the right size so that the students wasted very little time cycling endlessly though potential topics (which I often see with larger projects) and instead got down to work quickly. But the creative phase space was large enough that there was still an amazing diversity of mini-projects.

      Very few of the comp-phys mini projects had much in the way of similarity to my examples so the prompt and examples for that case seemed like they turned out just right. The digital mini-projects were a bit more restricted in scope due to the limited number of different types of sensors that were available, but there was an amazing variety in the paths that they took so I think that worked out really well too. Lucky first try for me I suspect.

      • Bret Benesh says:

        Do you have any advice on how to create projects that find the “sweet spot” of “focused enough, but allows for a lot of creativity?”

      • Joss Ives says:

        Thanks for getting me to consider this a bit more Bret. When reflecting on these two tasks, I realize that they were synthesis activities (for 2-3 weeks worth of topics) that involved only a minimum of new content as compared to other weeks. So my advice would be to find a task that could be used to synthesize a few weeks of content. It would probably be easier to start with a fairly specific task and then try to generalize it to the point where you could think of 3 or 4 examples of mini-projects that would fit the generalized one.

      • bretbenesh says:

        That is pretty good advice, Joss. Thanks!

  3. […] using NDSolve, it is really clunky for Euler-Kromer-based animations. Task 4.1 is a mini-project (examples) where they animate a collision and since they have only learned how to do this type of thing using […]

  4. […] course that I taught at UFV before taking a job at UBC was an online Computation Physics course. I previously posted the mini-project videos from when I ran the course in the fall and you can check that previous post […]


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