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Teach physics with Angry Birds

By Kent Muyskens
September 4, 2014
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Many students think physics is too hard for them to grasp. And many physics teachers reinforce this notion by using a lot of linear instruction techniques, demanding that they take notes and memorize, and focusing on drill and practice for standardized tests.

To make matters worse, educators often teach physics as abstract concepts, focusing on science laws and facts while devoting little time to experimentation, monitoring and interpretation. No wonder students fail to see the content's relevance to their everyday lives!

But it doesn't have to be this way. Research shows that, for learning to stick, students need to be engaged in meaningful activities that create positive experiences. Many educators have already discovered one tool that engages them: the iPad and similar tablets.

As educators put more focus on STEM, the National Science Education Standards recommend " "models and modeling" " as a unifying theme for science. The ISTE Standards addressing critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and technology concepts reinforce and support many of the national science standards as well.

To test our hypothesis that mobile devices would motivate kids to learn physics content, we gave five Panorama (Iowa) High School students iPads to use throughout the semester, both at school and at home. We installed numerous apps, including some based on physics, such as Coaster Physics, Video Physics and Angry Birds, as well as some for productivity and documentation, such as iMovie, Explain Everything, Notability and Dropbox.

Our study revealed that iPads benefited students in three distinct ways:

  • They were using their tablets to research information in real time.
  • They were taking ownership of their learning.
  • They were engaged in the physics content.

Researching information in real time
With access to iPads in class, we noticed that students were using their tablets to search for information on the internet during class discussions or to look up new ideas for a project or assignment. For example, during a discussion about whether it was possible to drive a car into the back of a truck, one student mentioned seeing this experiment conducted on the popular TV show " "Mythbusters," " which prompted another student to quickly find the clip on YouTube and share it with the class. Other students researched class assignments, such as making bottle rockets and creating weightlifting devices out of simple machines.

Enhancing student ownership of learning
As students became more independent in their learning with the iPad, they began using the devices to collect and analyze data to identify solutions and make informed decisions. One pair of students used the iPad to record their experiment so they could review the results, while another used a wind tunnel app to illustrate how a carburetor works. Another student used an app called Angle Finder to find the angle of an inclined plane, which was much more efficient than using a protractor.

Throughout the year, students turned to their iPads to record information in text, audio or video formats. It was common for them to take photos of assignments written on the board or data they collected.

Increased students interest and motivation
Using various apps to conduct experiments vastly improved student engagement in their lessons. When they used the app Video Physics to make a video of an object to analyze its motion, they were highly engaged and worked diligently to complete the assignment. Using the Coaster Physics app, students designed their own roller coasters and watched graphs of kinetic energy, potential energy, speed and acceleration change as the roller coaster went around the tracks.

The most popular app we used was Angry Birds, which helped students understand projectile motion. This game, which has players use a slingshot to catapult birds at enemy targets, follows basic physics principals. The students were laughing and enjoying themselves as they played the game and recorded their data — a sure sign of engagement!

These apps received high marks when we surveyed students about their experiences. One student said the Video Physics app helped her understand a concept better because she could visualize it rather than just reading about it. Another said it was one of the best learning experiences he'd had in physics all year.

For us, this study drove home the point that teachers need to include more real-world experiences and create activities that are interesting and novel. Those who do not leverage digital technology only widen the gap between the digital natives and the digital immigrants while missing the chance to get them more invested in their learning. Using iPads is one way for educators to incorporate these ideas, but it shouldn't be the only way. As educators, we need to look for every opportunity we can to offer engagement and deep learning.

Kent Muyskens has taught a variety of classes, including physics, chemistry, engineering, math and computer classes. During most of his 18 years teaching at Panorama High School, he was also the school's technology coordinator. He currently teaches chemistry at Carroll High School.

Trent Grundmeyer, Ph.D., was named 2007 Character Counts Administrator of the Year by the Character Counts! Coalition of Iowa. He was also recognized as the Iowa Secondary Principal of the Year in 2013. Grundmeyer is currently an assistant professor of educational leadership at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Learn more about implementing mobile learning techniques while earning CEUs from the Verizon Mobile Learning Academy.