Numerical Calculations in Class

You are probably tired of hearing me talk about numerical calculations. Sorry about that—I just get super pumped up.

This week, I did my “Intro to Numerical Calculations” in physics lab. I think it went pretty well. In case you haven’t seen my stuff (here is a quick start guide), here are the important deets.

  • It’s a workshop style presentation. I show something and then let the students do stuff.
  • Using python of course. Everything is on trinket.io (all the questions too—you can see that stuff here).
  • I start off with a super simple case of a cart moving with a constant velocity in 1D and then work my way up to free falling objects (with graphs).
  • There’s no 3D visualizations—even though VPython is awesome at this.
  • Even though this is the calculus-based physics lab, I used my material for the algebra-based lab. It’s a good place to start and I really didn’t have much time to make new stuff (I just picked up this lab on the first day of the semester—yay).

So, that’s that. But I really love this stuff. It’s great to see students that start off with little or no programming experience—heck, they even have trouble with the basic physics (and that’s OK). They really struggle modifying code to get things to work. They want to quit.

But they don’t quit. They start trying something. “Hey, can you make any color for this graph?” Yup, just use a vector color. Oh snap—you just used a vector.

I walk around the room and observe students. They start having discussions. It’s not about stuff like “how do you make a while loop?”—it’s more like “why is the velocity negative here?”. They are writing computer programs, but most of the talk is about physics. I’m always surprised about this aspect of their interactions.

At the end, they have some code. It solves a problem, it’s their code. They feel accomplished.

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