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Year end highlight—the power of real audiences and computational thinking

May 15, 2012

Last week, the Global Physics Department held another online first (that I know of), and invited 3 students (one 9th grader, one 11th grader, and one college freshman) to deliver presentations to 20 physics teachers and professors from around the nation.

My student, W, presented a capstone on a problem that came about from an off-hand remark I made when we were studying universal gravitation that he could probably go and write a program to model the time it takes for two masses to gravitationally attract one another. That comment proved to be enough to encourage the student to go and adapt an old program to try this out, and I was delightfully surprised when a few days later he stopped by with a working program. I was simply blown away when he did crazy incredible things like modify his program with an adjustable time-step that gets smaller as the masses come together in order to produce more accurate results.

Beyond just beaming with pride to see one of my students do something this impressive completely on his own, this presentation highlights two things to me. First, it clearly shows the power of a real audience. I think W gained greater insight into his work by trying to develop questions for the professors that would be watching. I think it was also immensely valuable to see that some of the questions this 9th grader was raising couldn’t immediately be answered by a physics professor. To me, it emphasizes the value of the process of learning, and shows that real learning is more than just being able to look something up/get an answer from someone smarter.

Secondly, W’s project demonstrates the power of computational thinking. This project was completed by a 9th grader taking Geometry. He has no understanding of integration or differential equations, the tools he would need to solve the problem analytically, and he won’t likely master these tools for another 5-6 years. But he does understand the idea of computation, and using the current value of the force and velocity to predict how the velocity will change and find the position a tiny step into the future, and then repeat this process over and over using a computer. And more than just getting the answer to this problem, I think the process of computational thinking gives him an excellent foundation on which to build his understanding of the calculus—what happens when we make those very small time steps infinitesimal?

Now, my challenge is to try to make sure each of my students learn both the power of computational thinking and the value of presenting to a real audience.

Finally, I encourage you to check out the recording meeting of the Global Physics Department last week, which features two additional presentations on vowel sound resonance from one of Josh Gates’s 11th graders and one of Andy Rundquist’s student’s presentation on building and analyzing a flute made from PVC.

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