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My summer quest: The Physics Problem Database

May 18, 2012

This was the last week of the semester, and so naturally, I was reminded of the dark side of standards based grading. Namely, students visiting at every hour of the day, wanting to show mastery of every concept, and me basically becomingly the physics problem pez dispenser, while desperately trying to cling to the bigger picture that this process is about learning, not checking off concepts. I will have much more to say about this in the near future, once finish with exams, but there is one thing that I keep fantasizing about that I believe would be a tremendous aid in helping me to achieve the vision of learning I have for my class: the problem database.

The Physics Problem Database was an idea that we hatched last year at Physics Teacher Camp, and Andy Rundquist was kind enough to jump in a slap together a very quick prototype that we sort of sat on. Now I feel a burning to do this right, and live my dream of working for a software startup, if only for a summer.

I’m going to start up a collaborative effort here on the internets to build this database, and after talking with Andy about this a bit, we’re going to try to do this right way, by working through the steps of developing a robust piece of software, starting with carefully outlining the use cases.From there, we’ll try to develop a feature list and get some user input on which features are most critical for a minimally viable program to be running by this fall.

This has led me to do a little bit of reading on writing use cases. Basically, as I understand it, the first step seems to be listing the actors who will interact with this software, and as best I can tell, I can only think of two possible actors, teachers and students, though the likely first version will only support teachers.

A use case consists of a simple description of a task that a particular user would try to accomplish with the problem database, followed by a benefit of that task. Here are a few examples:

  • As a teacher, I would like to be able to add a problems to the database that contain both images and equations in order to faithfully represent problems I already use.
  • As a teacher, I would like to be able to search for problems covering a particular concept, level of difficulty or author in order to prepare custom assessments for students.
  • As a teacher, I would like to be able to select problems from the database and output them on a single assessment that I could give to a student.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would use this form to submit use cases that you can think of for the Physics Problem Database.

I am far from a pro software developer (though I did get my certificate from Udacity CS101—so I should be able to code my own search engine). I’m learning a lot of this as I go, and would love your advice in this process, and I’d like to avoid layering on unnecessary complexity in this project. Again, the goal is to create a simple functional version 1.0 of the database that is ready to go by the early fall.

Finally, we do want this to be as collaborative as possible, and I want to start by collecting names of people interested in contributing to this project in any way. We are also trying to hold discussions about the project for half an hour after the Global Physics Department meetings on Wednesdays. You can see the recording of our first meeting here (the brainstorming session starts at 1 hour into the recording, but you might also want to check out Steve Dickie’s awesome talk about using Arduino to build probeware).

I’ve created a second form for people who are interested in contributing to this project over the summer. Please complete this form if you’re interested in contribute to this project in any way—either by submitting problems, helping to test out the database, or helping to develop it.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2012 11:17 pm

    Feel free to drop me a line if you need/want any technical help (though I’m sure you can find all you’ll need via stack overflow). Good luck!

  2. May 18, 2012 11:25 pm

    Why a new software platform? The big problem is collecting different problems and I don’t see how software (particularly buggy new software) helps with that. The AP Bio teachers have just started collecting problems into Google Docs, with some volunteering to transfer the collection to Exam View. It seems that collecting problems from many sources is more important than having a new tool for storing or presenting the problems.

    What problem are you trying to solve?

    • May 18, 2012 11:34 pm

      The main problem I see with collecting problems in google docs, Evernote (which I’ve been using), or whatever, is that assembling assessments requires a lot of tedious cutting and pasting. In addition, there really isn’t a nice was to add things like commentary to solutions to the problems and separate them from the problems themselves.

      My ideal would be have a sort of searchable storefront of problems, where I could search for “conservation of momentum problems” and see a list of results, and then inspect the problems to see commentary from other teachers, solutions, and my dream world, examples of student attempts to solve the problem. Then I’d just add the problems I like to a shopping cart, and when I’m done and checkout, all of the problems would be neatly arranged on a single page for me that I could just print and give to a student.

      • May 21, 2012 6:26 pm

        One of my projects for this summer is to try out a variety of test generation software. The reason I’m working on that is that, like you, I’m not happy with the tedious cutting and pasting, difficulty chasing down typos when there are 10 slightly different versions of a single problem spread throughout a variety of Word documents, etc. So I think I understand what problem you’re trying to solve.

        I haven’t really looked at what’s available, so it’s entirely possible that what you describe isn’t represented in any existing commercial solution. But if I understand what GSWP is asking, it’s worth doing a thorough evaluation of what exists first — to find out where the strengths and weaknesses of existing roducts lie. You may find a product that does most of what you want but is missing a single crucial feature, or you may find 10 products, each of which has one of the features that you want. This helps generate a lot of insight into design possibilities, but it also helps to more clearly define the “problem you are trying to solve”: the problem is that Product X lacks feature Y. Or whatever, depending on the results of your search. It’s like doing a lit review before starting an experiment — not just to be sure you’re not reinventing the wheel, but because other people’s difficulties may shed some light on your task.

        If you’ve already gone through that process and found the existing produts wanting, it would be great to read more about your findings — it would probably generate lots of good questions and discussions.

        • May 21, 2012 7:05 pm

          Good point. The only software I know of that comes close to what I’d like to see is ExamView, but I don’t think it does what I want it to do in terms of allowing anyone to add problems to a central repository, and I haven’t heard the best things about its general usability. But I think you are right that we should be a bit more thorough in looking at what options are already out there. Since I haven’t heard from anyone on the internet in love with their test-creation software, I sort-of assumed it didn’t exist.

  3. May 26, 2012 11:03 am

    The team I worked with last summer collected thousands of problems together in ExamView banks shared over Dropbox. Drop me a line and we can discuss how we did it. I think ExamView may do exactly what you want with a little finagling.

  4. February 21, 2013 3:38 am

    Where can I find the database site?
    Can I help?

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