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.


Syllabus for Digital Electronics Lecture, Fall 2012

I have three new-to-me courses that I am teaching this fall: comp-phys, digital electronics lecture and digital electronics lab. I am sharing the syllabus for my digital electronics “lecture” course below, but have removed a few things which are only relevant internally.

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UFV Physics 362 – Digital Electronics and Computer Interfacing Syllabus (V1) – Section AB1, Fall 2012

About this course

In addition to learning about digital electronics, one of the main goals of this course is to help you develop as a lifelong independent learner. Robert Talbert puts it much better than I ever could (http://goo.gl/ZIh0R):

“As you move through your degree and eventually into your career and your adult post-college life, your main value to the rest of the world and to the people you love is your ability to learn and grow without needing other people around to make it happen. There are many times in life where you MUST learn something, and you can’t wait for the next semester at the local college to come around for you to sign up for a course. You have to take charge. You have to learn on your own.”

This course is structured around the idea that you will do some initial learning on your own before you come to class and then in class you will work with your peers to deepen your understanding. You will be doing the heavy lifting in class instead of just watching me do examples and derivations on the board (do you remember how proficient you became at sword-fighting by watching the Princess Bride?). Some students find this very disorienting and some of you will find that this course structure will take you out of your normal comfort zone. The best thing you can do is come into the course with a positive attitude and be prepared to tweak your normal recipes for success to be able to get the most out of this course.

Please note that this course has a corequisite lab (Physics 372) which will focus on the hands-on aspects of digital electronics as well as the interplay between theory and hands-on applications.

Course Description (from the official outline)

This course emphasizes elementary digital electronics and interfaces. Topics include gates and Boolean algebra, Karnaugh maps, flip flops, registers, counters and memories, digital components, microprocessor functions and architecture, instruction sets, D/A and A/D converters, and waveshaping. PHYS 372, the laboratory portion of this course, must be taken concurrently. This course is designed to provide practical experience with the basic digital logic chips and how digital circuits can be interfaced with microprocessors.

Learning Goals

 Note that we will co-construct a proper set of detailed learning goals as we proceed through this course and those detailed learning goals will define what sort of questions can be asked on the quizzes and the final exam. The learning goals listed below, which are from the official course outline, are meant to be very broad and as such only provide a very rough framework in which we will fit all the fun that is digital electronics.

Learning goals from the official course outline: This course is designed to provide students with:

  1. the theory needed to understand the purpose and how digital devices function;
  2. an understanding and an appreciation of how a digital computer functions;
  3. the ability to design, construct and test simple digital logic circuits;
  4. an ability to program the common microprocessors;
  5. how information can be transferred to and from computers.

Textbook

Tony R. Kuphaldt, Lesson in Circuits: Volume IV – Digital, http://openbookproject.net/electricCircuits/Digital/index.html

In addition to this online textbook, I will leave a nice big pile of electronics textbooks in A353 for your use. As a group we can sort out a reasonable scheme for lending out these books while making sure that they are still available to everybody.

Course Components

Pre-class Assignments: The engine that drives this course is the collection of Socratic Electronics worksheets. For each worksheet, you will be assigned to research and answer a subset of the questions. In class you will present your findings in small and large groups. The goal is for you to learn how to locate information, problem-solve, collaborate, and clearly articulate your thoughts while learning about digital electronics. The answers to all the questions will be provided with the worksheets, so it is the solutions in which I am most interested and for which you are responsible in your preparation.

Class Periods: I run each class period under the assumption that you have completed the relevant pre-class-assignment and have made a genuine effort to make some sense of the material before showing up to class. We will use class time to help you clarify your understanding of the material and to build on the core ideas that you wrestled with in your pre-class assignments. In class you will mostly be working in small groups. Not all members of a group will have been assigned the exact same pre-class questions, so the first thing that you will do is present your own findings and come to group consensus on the solutions. In class I will also ask you to work on additional questions from the worksheets as well as other additional questions which I will provide. At appropriate times, I will provide mini-lectures to clarify ideas or to plant the initial seed for an idea which you will be studying on an upcoming pre-class assignment.

Peer and instructor assessment of pre-class and in-class work: Each class period you will be given a number of contribution points to spread among the rest of your group (not including yourself) based on how much their pre-class preparation and in-class work contributed to your group’s overall learning in class. The exact number is 8*(N-1)+1, where N is the number of students in your group. You can give any individual student up to 10 points and do not have to give out all of your points. I will average the points assigned to you by the rest of your group for each class period. If needed, I may adjust this average up or down by up to a couple of points if I feel that your class period average is a very poor match to my own observations of your pre-class preparation and in-class contributions. I prefer not to have to make any adjustments this way and will very clearly spell out for you what factors I have considered when adjusting this daily class period average. I will drop your five worst daily class period averages when calculating your final mark for this category.

Homework: Nope, but I will make sure that you have sufficient resources for quiz and exam preparation.

Quizzes: Roughly every two weeks we will use the entire class period to have a quiz, for a total of 5 quizzes over the course of the term. The quiz will be split into two pieces: a solo quiz and a group quiz. You will first write the solo quiz and then approximately 2/3rds of the way through the class period I will collect the solo quizzes and then get you to write the group quiz, typically in groups of 3 or 4. The group quiz will mostly be the same as the solo quiz, but will often have some extra questions. If you score higher on the solo quiz than the group quiz, I will use your solo quiz mark when calculating your overall group-quiz average.

Quiz Averages: I will use your best 3 of 5 group quiz scores when calculating your overall group-quiz average. Things are a little more complicated for your overall solo-quiz average. In addition to the three-hour final exam, I will be creating five different half-hour-long re-tests, one for the material covered on each of the five quizzes during the term. You can choose to write two of these re-tests as part of the final exam and your mark from each of those re-tests can replace your earlier mark on the corresponding quiz (including if you missed the earlier quiz completely). The catch here is that I will only allow you to write a given re-test if you demonstrate to me that you have put in a reasonable amount of effort to learn that material. I will expect you to make your case by presenting me with the specific things that you did to learn the material and that you did to learn from your mistakes on the initial quiz.

Evaluation Scheme

Peer and instructor assessment of pre-class and in-class work:

20%

Solo quizzes:

40%

Group quizzes:

10%

Final exam:

30%

Tentative Course Schedule

The numbers Sxx indicate the worksheet number for that day’s worksheet. The worksheets can be found at http://www.ibiblio.org/kuphaldt/socratic/doc/topical.html

Week of Monday Wednesday Friday Notes
Sept. 3 D01 – Numeration Systems (S04) No class Classes begin Sept. 4.
Sept. 10 D02 – Binary Arithmetic (S05) D03 – Digital Codes (S06) D04 – Basic Logic Gates (S03)
Sept. 17 D05 – TTL Logic Gates (S07) D06 – CMOS Logic Gates (S08) No class
Sept. 24 Quiz 1 D07 – Trouble Gates (S09) D08 – Boolean Algebra (S13)
Oct. 1 D09 – Sum-of-Products and Product-of-Sums Expressions (S14) D10 – Karnaugh Mapping (S15) No class
Oct. 8 Thanksgiving. No classes. D11 – Binary Math Circuits (S16) Quiz 2 Wednesday Oct. 10 is last day to withdraw without W appearing on transcript.
Oct. 15 D12 – Encoders and Decoders (S17) D13 – Multiplexers and Demultiplexers (S18) No class
Oct. 22 D14 – Latch Circuits (S21) D15 – Timer Circuits (S22) Quiz 3
Oct. 29 D16 – Flip-flop Circuits (S23) D17 – Counters (S26) No class
Nov. 5 D18 – Shift Registers (S28) Quiz 4 Remembrance day. No classes.
Nov. 12 D19 – Digital-to-Analog Conversion (S30) D20 – Analog-to-Digital Conversion (S31) No class Tuesday Nov. 13 is the final day to withdraw from courses.
Nov. 19 D21 – Memory Devices (S34) D22 – Optional Topics (see notes) D23 – – Optional Topics
Nov. 26 Quiz 5 D24 – Optional Topics No class Potential topics include digital communication, micro-controllers, state machines and electro-mechanical relays.
Dec. 3 D25 – Optional Topics Monday Dec. 3 is the last day of classes