Week 2: Busy, busy, busy!

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Sunday, June 19, 2016


Simon Wright

The second week of working with AAPT has been exciting, and very full. I spent a few days working on an upcoming project aimed at teaching physics to young students through computer science and programming, which is something I have always been interested in. The project is based around the Bootstrap project, which did a similar thing with computer science and algebra, allowing students to program their own games that help them understand algebraic principles. Part of the idea with the new physics version of Bootstrap is to teach students how to build and create models, which physicists do all the time. The project is still just beginning, but I’m looking forward to going more in-depth with it as the summer progresses.

One fascinating resource I found (or rather, was directed towards) was this website by engineer and designer Bret Victor. There are a few essays there that I really appreciated. The first was “The Ladder of Abstraction,” where Victor discusses interactive visualization, and effective ways of abstracting data in a meaningful way. It was fascinating, not just from a programming perspective but also coming from a physics background. Creating useful visuals for data or models is extremely important in physics, and Victor presented abstraction in a way that was clear but also original and novel. This is something that will be useful to keep in mind as we are developing the modeling resources for the computer science and physics project.

The other wonderful article on that website is called “Learnable Programming,” and it was possibly even more fascinating and applicable to this project. Victor explores the way that programming is made up of both an environment that is “installed on the computer,” and a language that is “installed in the programmer’s head.” Victor aims to make programming more transparent, especially when just starting out, and he provides a variety of suggestions about how the programming environment can be modified to be more easily accessible and a lot more clear. While we aren’t planning to write our own editor that includes all of these ideas, they are still very important when we consider how to best explain programming to a young student who may never have seen code before.

The biggest piece of work this week, though, was beginning in earnest to prepare resources for the Optical Society workshop that will be happening at the AAPT summer meeting in July. Rebecca and I are working on creating a large number of lesson plans for teaching optics at the K-8 level using cheap or repurposed items that can be easily obtained. The lab using hydrophilic balls that I discussed last week was one of the first that we created for this workshop, although there are already several lesson plans available through the AAPT website. Once they are done, I will post whatever I am able to here on this blog so that any readers can get a better idea of how these are turning out!

Rebecca and I met with her daughter’s science teacher this week, and we were able to get some input about what activities would be appropriate for different age ranges, and how best to present information when teaching younger students. Rebecca has taught physics before, but it was really helpful to get some commentary from someone who regularly works with very young students, and knows what all of the instincts will be when faced with a new, interesting activity. With that information, it will be our job to exploit those instincts in order to improve learning and scientific exploration.

On Friday, we took a trip downtown to the Department of Education, where we met with a group of people about creating a Master Teacher Leader course for physics teachers that would give resources to good teachers in order to help them hone their skills and pass them on to the next generation of teachers as well. Afterwards, we went to the Library of Congress and learned a bit about historical resources we could use in a variety of upcoming projects.

This week has been extremely busy. I can barely keep track of how many projects we have going on right now. But far from being frustrating, this is really exciting to me. Not only am I getting a chance to contribute significantly to a lot of important work, but I am also learning a lot about the nitty gritty aspects of working with such a wide variety of organizations. Next week I will see what I can include here in the way of samples of some of my work, but hopefully some of these lessons will make their way online soon and I can show off some of the things I have been doing!

Simon Wright