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Introducing Physics Coach—an app for tracking physics “workouts”

March 19, 2019

While on sabbatical, I’ve had much more time to devote to working out. Back in it was warmer, I developed a decent slow running habit which I tracked in Strava, and once it got colder, moved to gym workouts which are tracked by an app built by my gym.

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One of the things I’ve noticed is how helpful these apps have been for motivating me to workout—seeing a graph of how many times I’ve worked out this week is usually a good nudge to push me out the door when I’m not feeling fully in the mood to going to the gym, and Strava gives me a wealth of tools for analyzing my runs, even showing me all the super fit Norwegians in my neighbohood and how much faster they run around the local park than I do.

All of this got me thinking, what would an app to track physics workouts look like?

Last year, I implemented Casey Rutherford’s excellent homework policy that abandons traditional “assigned” homework (“do problems 1-33 odd for tonight”), and replaces it with asking students spend a certain amount of time practicing physics in a way that will increase their understanding and then document that practice. In my first year physics classes, this worked out to asking students to practice physics for 3 hours outside of class each week, and giving them a weekly menu of options focusing building skills, problem solving and extensions. Here’s an sample of a what a weekly practice menu looks like.

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I asked students to document their work in practice log that consisted of Google doc that shared with me, starting each week’s practice with a table that documented the time, duration, and what they did for each practice, and then to include photos of their written work as evidence of what they did. To make it easy to look at each students’ practice log, I built a simple dashboard, in Google sites and put a link to each student’s log on this page. When I wanted to give students weekly feedback, it was easy to open all of the logs for one class on individual tabs and then quickly add comments and questions using the Google Docs commenting tool.

Overall, this turned out to be an awesome way to do homework. It was very easy for me to engage students in deep discussions of physics by adding comments to their work. Students were able to find meaningful work that they could custom tailor to their needs. Students also quickly saw how well practice correlates with improved understanding on assessments. For the most part, students were also very responsible about doing practice, even though it wasn’t graded at all (I only wrote feedback. Interestingly, I also think students felt more guilty about not doing physics practice than they would have felt for a more traditional homework assignments.

Most of the downsides came down to the requirement to document. Getting photos into Google docs and typing up what you did in a table became tedious for many students, and they struggled to see any benefit, especially when they didn’t engage my feedback and just chose to work on a new thing every night, and for some students this became a major roadblock to their progress.

Introducing Physics Coach

All of this got me thinking that there should be a way to make this easier. After seeing how easy it is to log a run or workout in Strave or at the gym, I stated to think “There outta be an app for that…” and I set out to build physics coach.

I spent quite a bit of time this year learning React, Redux and Firebase, and by far the greatest motivator for learning this has been setting a goal of writing this app, rather than just trying to “learn React.” Also, so much of the progress I’ve made with this app and as a software developer has been due to regular pair programming sessions I’ve had with three former students, Holley, Yousaf, and Leo and one amazing student at the University of Illinois, Jason, who reached out on my blog. I’ve now got a decent working prototype that I would like to explain here and invite your feedback.

This web app supports Google authentication, and after students login and are assigned to a class, they will see a screen that looks like this.

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When the student opens a new worksheet session, they see a screen that looks like this, prompting them to enter a goal for this practice session. (Right now the timer defaults to 1 minute for testing purposes, but can be set to anything).
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Once you press start session, a simple Pomodoro-style timer comes up like this:
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When the session concludes, the student is brought to a screen asking them to do a bit of reflecting on their session:

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And they are then given the option to upload photos of their work, including by capturing photos from the webcam.

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Once you save your practice, you can go back and view previous practices:
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And examine one practice in detail:
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And if you click on an image, you bring up a lightbox element that lets you zoom in on the photo.

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All of this is working seemingly nicely at the moment, and I’m working on adding a few other features:

  • Courses & Roles: putting students into courses, and setting up a “teacher” role so that a teacher can see all of the students in their class.
  • Commenting: We want teachers to be able to add comments to a students practice session so that the teacher can give helpful feedback to the student.
  • Push protocol: I’d like to add a button for students to press when they’re stuck. If they’ve worked on something for 5 minutes, and haven’t made any progress at all, I want them to press this “push protocol” button, and it would ask them to document their work with a photo, explain why they are stuck, and then create a record of this practice. I’m thinking about possibly creating a way to share those “push protocol” practices with the class, so that other students in the class could offer feedback and suggestions.
  • Image annotations: I’m thinking it might be nice to be able to specifically annotate images of student work.
  • Tagging: I’d like to add tagging support, so you might be able to tag things like about your practice process “listening to music”, or “studying in library” or content/action tags, like “kinematics” or “reviewing for test”.
  • Simple analytics: Similar to my gym all I’d like to show a student how many times they’ve practiced recently, and perhaps give them a tool to see how their and level of focus varied over time and with various factors like time of day.

I want your feedback and would love some beta testers

I do have lots of questions:

  • Does this seem like something that might be useful for your classes?
  • Do you think students would be willing to use this app to log their practice sessions?
  • Am I asking the right metacognitive questions at the end of each practice?
  • What other features might you want to see in an app like this?

If you’re interested in seeing physics coach in action, you can try out a slightly older version than the one pictured above at https://physics-coach.firebaseapp.com/ (you’ll need to authenticate with your Google account). You can also check out the code at my github repo.

I would really love to find a couple of teachers interested in beta testing this with their students. If you might be interested, please leave a comment here, and we can talk about how to set this up for your class.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy Rundquist permalink
    March 19, 2019 8:44 am

    This looks really great! I love you how describe using the desire for a product as motivation to learn a process (I think there’s probably physics learning lessons in that too). I also love the connection to fitness helpers, as I think it’s a pretty good analogy, especially with Casey’s homework approach.

    Are you hosting this on a server of your own or somewhere else?

    • March 19, 2019 8:47 am

      It’s all hosted on Google Firebase. Firebase makes it a simple two command process to deploy my the build from my machine to Firebase hosting, and the NoSQL Firebase Firestore database has been awesome for storing the tiny amount of data I’ve uploaded for testing purposes.

      Once I get this into a reasonable state, I’ve got good intentions to go back to the Physics Problem Database. It’s all a race against the sabbatical clock.

  2. Barb Austin permalink
    March 19, 2019 11:26 am

    I am pretty sure that I want to beta test this app.

  3. March 20, 2019 7:24 pm

    I love what you are doing here and I would definitely use this tool next school year. How can I help?

    • March 20, 2019 7:36 pm

      Awesome! I’m making some final edits so that teachers can create courses so that it will be ready for beta testing. I should have it ready by mid-next week.

  4. Jacqueline Benoist permalink
    April 13, 2019 5:56 pm

    Hi. Nice job and great idea. I’ve been looking for something along these lines for a while and would definitely be interested in beta testing. Let me know how I can get involved.

  5. Kyle permalink
    May 20, 2019 2:31 pm

    I’d love to beta test your app! This idea has been brewing with me for quite some time, but I lack the computer programming skill to put it to fruition. It reminds me a lot of Jack Daniels VDot system for running. I currently teach NY regents physics.

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