How to teach introductory physics better than a textbook 

For a school project, I wanted to explore making complex education topics more approachable and understandable for younger students, using the affordances of a digital textbook. Due to its tangible, real-world applications—and a personal belief that physics could be made more accessible to younger students with the right interactive experience—I decided that introductory physics would be a good candidate.


Research
I began by speaking with a local physics teacher and some of her students to understand key areas of typical physics curricula that could be improved. After reviewing an introductory physics textbook and discussing problem solving practices, I decided to focus on the experience of creating free body diagrams. These diagrams represent a key method in beginning to understand the fundamentals of physics. They're meant to help students visualize the forces working in real-object scenarios, and are typically made with pictures or simplified drawings of objects, with arrows used to describe forces.
Free body diagrams taken from scans of an introductory physics textbook
Free body diagrams sketched by students during problem solving
I spoke specifically with students to understand how these diagrams were being used, if they needed to be changed or improved at all, and if so—how? I learned that although creating free-body diagrams was ultimately more useful to solving problems than having no visual aid, they still:

• didn't make problem solving more exciting or engaging
• were confusing to understand for physics beginners
• did a poor job of making physics feel relevant

Out of 22 students in an introductory physics class,
• Only 5 answered yes to the question "Do free body diagrams make solving physics problems more interesting or enjoyable"
• While 17 answered yes to the question "Does drawing free body diagrams feel like a chore?"
• However, every student answered yes to "Does creating your own free body diagrams make learning easier?"

The majority of students attributed their negative answers to the fact that creating clean-looking, effective diagrams was a bit of an artistic feat in itself. Plus, they often featured uninteresting objects or content, and just generally felt like a chore to create.


The goal:
Utilize a digital textbook environment to create a more engaging experience for solving physics problems, that accomplishes the following things:

• Makes creating good diagrams simpler and more enjoyable
• Helps solving physics problems feel more relevant and interesting
• Additionally, the experience should be designed to accommodate solving textbook problems and also "sandboxing" made-up problems, allowing exploration in-class or in students' free time
Designing a solution:
Based on these criteria, I began imagining a new digital textbook environment that would enable a better means of learning to solve physics problems. The environment would need to be structured around the following experiences: 

• solving assigned problems in a textbook, with a reward system
• creating and solving practice problems in a sandbox learning environment
• sharing problems, and solving problems created by classmates
Sketches for a digital problem solving environment
To design the interface, I started by working around some specific features that would help solve key problems identified in my research, and also improve the problem solving experience using the affordances of a digital textbook:

• Use pre-made object illustrations to create visually interesting diagram compositions
• Drag-and-drop object placement to make creating diagrams faster and simpler
• Ability to unlock new objects by completing textbook problems, that could be used in solving practice problems created by students or the teacher. This should make textbook problem solving more rewarding.
• Ability to create new problems that could be shared with classmates, using the objects they've unlocked
Solving a problem:
The problem solving module allows students to apply forces to an existing free-body diagram that correlates to the problem, as is usually presented in a textbook. Students can then use a freeform notebook area to write out their work for solving the problem.
The Sandbox:
The sandbox area for creating problems allows students to come up with their own physics scenarios, and have fun creating free-body diagrams that fit them. This experience helps students learn by encouraging them to explore the way forces act in the world around them, and dramatically expands on the way students approach and learn from problem solving in existing classroom environments.
Expanding the sandbox experience:
Problems created by students could be shared with classmates, publicly commented on, and even incorporated into class curriculum.

Students could also unlock more objects to use in their diagrams as they solve problems in the textbook, or by solving problems created by other students. Problems with scenarios featuring interesting objects create incentive for students to attempt them. For example, being the first in your classroom to unlock the Monster Truck and publish a sandbox problem featuring it would be gratifying, and could even be tied to extra credit in a classroom setting.
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