From the Syllabus column of the February 16, 2001 Chronicle of Higher Education

Physics Course at Davidson College Uses “Physlet” Simulations

Suppose you want to learn how fast a baseball moves when it's thrown, or how quickly it accelerates when dropped from a height. Maybe you want to map its path when you hurl it across the room. Or perhaps you'd rather use a football. What then?

Well, you could get yourself a football or baseball, throw them about, and take things from there. But balls move so fast that it can be tough to plot a path or calculate speed.

It might be easier to use a “Physlet”—a computer simulation created by Wolfgang Christian, a physics professor at Davidson—that can be modified to show, say, a big ball or small one moving at any number of speeds under any number of conditions.

And balls are the least of it. Mr. Christian and Mario Belloni, another physicist at Davidson, have created Physlets that simulate rocket propulsion, light refraction, and harmonic motion, among other phenomena.

In all, about 300 physics experiments can be simulated using Physlets. All you need is the professors' new book, Physlets: Teaching Physics With Interactive Curricular Material (Prentice Hall) and the accompanying CD-ROM.

The two men wrote Physlets in an effort to revive the physics curriculum, which used to be “straight lecture and demonstration,” Mr. Belloni says.

His intro course couldn’t be more different, he adds. If he wants students in his algebra-based intro class to calculate the acceleration of an object, he goes on the Web, pops in the velocity and time, and lets the students go to it from the comfort of their dorm rooms. In the calculus-based version of the course, he might delete the velocity, add the object's position, and let students figure out the acceleration with that data alone.

Mr. Belloni assigns Physlet exercises before class and reviews them before lecturing. “In the past, we taught students based on what we thought they needed to know. Using Physlets, we teach students based on what they need to know. We teach to their weaknesses, because we can assess them before class.”

The reading list:

Mr. Belloni's students read the fifth edition of Physics: Principles With Applications (Prentice Hall, 1998). The professor, of course, also uses Physlets, released last month.

The assignments:

“It's a fairly traditional class,” Mr. Belloni says. There are four exams, five quizzes, labs, weekly problem sets, and lots of Physlets.


The next assignment for Mr. Belloni and Mr. Christian is to take Physlets to the next level—the upper-level classes, that is. They want to adapt Physlets for quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism.