The PhET interactive simulation group released four prototypes to help teachers with online learning as the COVID pandemic was bearing down on the nation. I’m working with one of them – an AC circuit sim – right now for my class.

On March 13 – just as the first university physical classroom shutdowns due to COVID were taking place – the PhET interactive simulation group at the University of Colorado released four prototype simulations to help educators like me jump to online instruction.

I’ve been using one of those prototypes, the one on AC circuits (shown above), to prepare exercises for my class to replace the usual physical labs featuring oscilloscopes and circuit elements.

We will be using the AC circuit sim in my class (a 2nd semester calc-based introductory physics class) during the week of April 6. Writing these exercises has really exercised my knowledge of RLC circuits, which might have atrophied a bit since my glory days (whenever those were).

I share these exercises with the caveat that I am not a physics education researcher or curriculum expert. I’m just a practitioner doing the best I can with the tools at hand.

In brighter days (a few weeks ago) my class was meeting in the SCALE-UP format. That format, which leverages in-person social interactions to improve learning, is obviously not possible right now.

So here are my four AC circuit exercises. I welcome comments or suggestions:

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What I'm working on now: A PhET lesson on magnetic induction for my 2nd semester calculus-based introductory physics class.

I am trying to provide PhET-based lessons as substitutes for the physical labs in my 2nd semester calculus-based introductory physics classes. At least for now, I am limiting the PhET simulations I use to those that are coded in HTML – the Java sims might be problematic for some of my students.

I am not requiring my students to do these labs and submit reports. Instead, they are recommended. At this point, I’ve taken my foot off the requirement gas pedal.

There are real live experts on Physics Education Research who build curriculum, and I am not one of those. Obviously, experts at the University of Colorado built the PhET sims, and I am taking advantage of those. But I am doing the best job I can to write up lessons using the sims keeping in mind my own students’ backgrounds and what we have previously done this semester. I also have my own priorities – I feel very strongly about doing the best I can to build a conceptual foundation.

I am asking students to start by reading an introduction to the topic that I have written in lieu of my usual 10-minute (or so) “mini-lecture” at the beginning of the first class of the week. The written introductions of course lack the really wonderful humor I insert into my mini-lectures (or maybe it’s not so wonderful – maybe my students will not miss it at all). Then I give them a link to a Khan Academy video lesson on the topic. Then the PhET lesson.

I am also assigning Mastering Physics problem sets from our Knight textbook to provide lots of practice with calculations (since it is a calculus-based class).

So I’m attaching a pdf of my PhET lesson on magnetic induction (for the week beginning March 30) so that anybody who is interested can take a peek. Comments (via whatever channel you choose) are welcome.

From the PhET Faraday’s Law simulation.
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How science and technology are making this pandemic event more survivable than it would have been 20 years ago.

A list of things I’ve thought of that are making this pandemic more survivable than it would have been had it taken place 20 years ago:

mRNA technology: With messenger RNA technology, there is hope for a vaccine in a year and a return to some normalcy by Fall 2021. Without it, we would have known for sure that we were many years away from a vaccine. Here is a description of the present effort from STAT.

Internet-based communication (teaching tools): The state of internet-based communication is far, far ahead of where it was 20 years ago. We have a hope of (for example) teaching our students reasonably well if we are kept out of physical classrooms until (say) Fall 2021. We still don’t have the technology to teach as well in a virtual environment as we can in a SCALE-UP studio-style physics classroom. But we can do some things – like PhET lab simulations (see above). And people more clever than I are figuring out ways to engage their students some using tools like Zoom. (I will be learning soon) And perhaps this crisis will propel the effort to produce the virtual reality learning environment we need to reproduce a physical SCALE-UP studio-style environment with fidelity.

Internet-based communication (group collaboration tools): I have family members using Microsoft Teams and Web Ex to carry on meetings (synchronous) and chats and general workflow (asynchronous) using group collaboration tools, which provide some (but not all) of the interactivity of a physical office environment. Now if only Congress could figure out a way to vote remotely so that infected members could vote without showing up.

This tweeter is the CIO of the business school at Auburn University. Sarcasm usually doesn’t work on twitter. In this case, it did.

LED light bulbs for general use: The incandescent bulbs we used in our house (and you probably did in your house) 20 years ago failed in months. At the urging of our children, we’ve made the transition first to compact flourescents and then to LED’s, which are very long-lived. If we don’t have access to replacement bulbs for 18 months, we should be fine. That would not have been the case if we were still relying on incandescent bulbs.

I invite you to add items to this list. Tweet, DM or email me at my FSU address.

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What will Florida's economy look like after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides? And…how should our students learn so that they are well-prepared to thrive in that economy?

Florida’s economy will almost certainly look significantly different after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

It is likely that the hospitality and tourism industry that is so important to our state will be significantly smaller. But what (if anything) will replace it?

One example of what will change is already apparent: While restaurants, hotels and attractions are idling workers, Amazon is hiring 100,000 new workers to meet the dramatically increased demands of delivering goods to residences.

Of course, health care workers hold our future in their hands right now. This raises an important question: How can we prepare more Florida students for health care careers, including careers as physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners? How can we make sure that all students have equitable access to those careers and others (including those in nursing and medical technologies) regardless of their socioeconomic situation?

We should begin to educate more of our own kids to be scientists and engineers instead of having to import so many. How can we do that in an equitable way?

This is not just a question for Florida’s postsecondary system, but also the K-12 system. If changes are going to be made, they will have to happen at both levels or the effort will be wasted.

If you have an opinion on these or related questions, I invite you to write it up (preferably 500 words or less) and send it to me for posting here. The future of Florida’s economy and educational system are tightly coupled, and we might as well start that conversation now.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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How well can our students actually learn with present distance learning technologies? Maybe better than they could in a traditional lecture class, but not as well as they could in a studio-style course.

A Studio Physics class at Florida State University

With students at nearly every college and university in the nation now taking their courses entirely online, it’s worth asking the question: Are students learning less, the same or even more than they would have in the physical classrooms they were occupying only a week ago?

The answer may be more complicated than you think – and it is informed by our experiences with MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) and recent Physics Education Research.

An MIT team that implemented a MOOC version of a first semester introductory physics course that covered mechanics concepts measured student learning gains by pre-testing and post-testing using the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). The FCI is the gold standard among the conceptual inventories developed by the Physics Education Research community over the last several decades to measure student learning gains. The MIT team reported their results in a 2014 publication in The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Colvin et al. said that “The [MOOC] students had a normalized gain slightly higher than typical values for a traditional [lecture] course, but significantly lower than typical values for courses using interactive engagement pedagogy.” That is, the students in the massive online class learned a bit more than students in traditional lecture classes but much less than they do in an “interactive engagement pedagogy” course like our Studio Physics courses (shown above).

In fact, a recent paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research shows that what many students consider the highlight of lectures – lecture demonstrations – can actually be more effective learning tools when they are presented online instead of “live” in a classroom. Furthermore, not only did students who watched online videos of lecture demonstrations learn more than students who watched them live, but also “their self-reported enjoyment was just as high.”

Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do online for my second-semester calculus-based interactive engagement Studio Physics class during our COVID event that will be as effective as what we could have done in our physical classroom during the last five weeks of class. The “magic” in an interactive engagement environment like the Studio Physics classroom comes from taking advantage of the fact that human beings are designed to do challenging things like learning in social environments. The collaborative learning that takes place in laboratory exercises performed together or in group problem-solving exercises depends on all of the bandwidth that interactions among the members of our three-student groups involve – not just the words they say to each other but also the gestures and facial expressions and subtleties in the tone of voice. Nothing presently available for online interactions can reproduce that.

My last Studio Physics class on March 11 prior to the COVID-19 shutdown

That is not to say that such rich personal interactions will never be possible when distances separate collaborating learners. Advances in virtual reality may someday make it possible for educators to reproduce the quality of the learning environment in our Studio Physics classes for students separated by many miles.

But not yet. For the remaining weeks of my course, I will look for the highest quality learning resources I can find to share with my students – including recorded lectures and demonstrations. The students who are most motivated and equipped to learn may be able to take some advantage of those resources. Others will get little or nothing out of them.

Perhaps the next time we are driven out of our physical classrooms by a global pandemic we will be equipped to provide a learning environment of the highest quality without a physical classroom using future advances in virtual reality.

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Thank you to the crew at Capital Regional Medical Center who took care of me on Friday as a catastrophe bore down on them.

I had to record this scene the old-fashioned way – with my memory – since I didn’t have my cell phone:

I was being rolled into an operating room at Capital Regional Medical Center on Friday morning. When the doors opened, I saw a phalanx of about half a dozen medical professionals, all gowned and masked. More importantly, they radiated confidence and focus. They were accompanied by gleaming equipment, all brought together to repair me.

I remember that while I was rolling into the room I was amazed that with all that is bearing down on these medical professionals they could focus on the task at hand – me. But they did. The first few days of my recovery have been extraordinarily smooth. They did a spectacularly terrific job.

It’s not that these professionals were oblivious to the imminent catastrophe of COVID-19. In talking with them during pre-op the day before and that morning before the surgery, I learned that they know better than anyone what is bearing down on them. And yet they took me on and performed their work with precision.

These people – and their colleagues around the nation – are the army defending our society right now. There are already casualties among emergency room physicians. Many more such sacrifices by medical professionals and their families will almost certainly follow.

But when this is over, we will be able to say that many of the nation’s best and brightest – those in our medical professions – put us on their backs and did the best job possible protecting our society.

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The coronavirus: Why colleges and universities are preparing to shut down physical campuses after spring break.

For students and employees with chronic respiratory illnesses at colleges and universities, the pattern is familiar: Three to four weeks after classes convene after summer break, Christmas break or spring break, the new viruses that students who scattered to other cities, states and nations bring back to campus after break are circulating vigorously. Your nose is running hard and your lungs are popping and rattling, making it hard to concentrate or even sleep. With a little luck, you avoid developing pneumonia and the illness just causes a little inconvenience before it clears itself (with the help of your inhalers) and you are back to normal.

For this past cycle – at the beginning of February – I needed a little help because I developed what the radiologist who reviewed my chest X-ray called “patchy” pneumonia. But it seemed to have been bacterial and a round of antibiotics prescribed at my HMO’s Urgent Care Center cleared me nicely.

Such is the life of an asthmatic physics professor.

This spring break coming up might be different, though. The Wuhan coronavirus is much more likely to make me really sick – or worse – than the viruses that I usually pick up after university breaks.

Of course, the hazard isn’t limited to the older folks on campus. Students can get really sick, too. Our two oldest children each ended up with really sick lungs during the first semester of their freshman years at college, and both were far away from home. I will never forget the feeling of helplessness as my wife and I kept our oldest child – a daughter – on her cell phone as she wheezed her way across a snow-covered quad toward the student health center at the University of Chicago late in her first fall semester there. We were hoping that she would still be alive when she got to the facility’s lobby. There was nothing we could do to help her because she was a thousand miles away. (She made it and recovered)

The New York Times reported on Friday that the University of Washington (in hard hit Seattle) is closing down its physical campuses and switching all instruction to online. The paper also reported that other universities are preparing for such a possibility – and that they may shut down physical classes after spring break. My university – Florida State – is one of the institutions preparing.

Switching an active learning class like mine from physical to online would not serve student learning well. I am not aware of any way of reproducing the highly interactive nature of my class online, and I am certainly not prepared to do so on short notice. Nevertheless, the safety and health of the students (and mine, too) are much more important than learning magnetism, AC circuits and diffraction of electromagnetic waves – the topics that we have not yet addressed. I can throw something together using available simulations to substitute for physical lab exercises and online problem sets to substitute for in-class collaborative problem-solving exercises. I can probably also track down some well-produced lecture-type presentations for students to watch if they miss my in-class theatrics.

My students will learn much less on the average than they would have in the physical classroom. But it will have to be good enough. This is not a drill.

So…if my university shuts down its physical campus, it’s not because we are using the pandemic as an excuse for being lazy. We are doing it because several times a year we go through a low-grade version of what is happening now – and we know based on this personal experience how dangerous a nuclear version will be.

A Studio Physics class at Florida State University.

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