Visualization – Learning Physics In Real Terms

Visualization – Learning Physics In Real Terms

Classrooms around the world are full of students desperately seeking ways to remember facts and figures important for when they are finally tested on their knowledge of their chosen subject.

Science is such that it requires a high depth of understanding and an ability to demonstrate knowledge of multiple theories. ;So how do we create better learning environments?  What makes one student excel in their exams and another fail?


In the late 1990’s the method which science, specifically Physics, was taught in the US made an important breakthrough, thanks to the interest and hard work of a number of professors and lecturers at MIT.

The Need For a Change of Teaching Method

Attendance had dropped to around 40% and failure rate had increased to over 10%. It seemed that whilst the MIT freshman Physics students were intelligent and had a good grasp on math, many struggled with the concepts behind introductory Physics. It was time to try something new. 

Technology Enabled Advanced Learning (TEAL)

By borrowing ideas from other universities a group at MIT gathered with a view to implement a new method of learning for Physics students. 

This group included Professor of Physics, John Belcher who holds several prominent accreditations for other scientific achievements and Peter Dourmashkin, Senior Lecturer who headed the initial study group at MIT and had a key role to play in communicating the results to other groups such as the American Association of Physics Teachers

Funding was generated from several sources to put their ideas into practice. 

MIT required two classrooms to be redesigned to move away from the traditional lecture theater format. This was funded by MIT. Other investors sponsored the purchase of necessary Physics equipment, laptop computers and the costs involved with re-shaping and re-writing the entire first and second semester introductory Physics courses. 

The TEAL Strategy – Learning by Doing 

Electron Deflection Tube

Electron Deflection Tube

The whole emphasis behind the initial TEAL project, which was piloted by 150 students in 2000, was the concept of “learning by doing” in the subject of electromagnetism.

The classroom was made up of round tables with small groups of mixed ability students. Computers were the focal point, instead of as before, the lecturer, and students watched the lecture on slides, collecting data for the experiment in a stimulating way. Other aspects of the new method included:

  • Short, 20 minute lectures by the professor, interspersed between the practical activities
  • Q&A sessions, using hand held polling keypads
  • Problem solving exercises, to help students learn collaboration, often led by a graduate student
  • Visualizations using both interactive (3D) and passive (2D) illustrations
    • For example, an interactive video game demonstrates the interaction of charges mediated by their electric field
    • Or, a passive visualization, could show the magnetic field generated by a floating coil
  • Web based homework assignments required for preparation before the class
  • Modeling, using technology such as electron deflection tubes was essential for scientific reasoning as students could develop a coherent understanding of a physical process. 

For the first time, Physics teachers wore wireless microphones so could wander between tables, interacting with the students and facilitating conversation. 

The Success of TEAL 

The results were positive with learning gains doubling by using the new method that combined lecture, recitation, hands on experiments and visualization techniques. Students reported: 

"The 3D visualizations are the one thing that I can't get from a book or learning on my own."

“Visualizations and conceptual questions help explain what is really happening behind all the numbers, especially in an abstract topic as magnetostatics."

By 2005 MIT was using this for all their introductory Physics courses and many other Universities have followed suit over the last decade. 

A More Effective Way To Learn 

Physics Experiments

Download FREE Physics Experiments from 3B Scientific

By reducing the cognitive load on learning, students better absorb abstract concepts that make up the foundation of Physics. 

TEAL promotes learning as interactive, engaging and stimulating and by working within groups students can test their knowledge whilst sharing ideas in a positive environment.

What are your experiences of teaching Physics in the classroom?  Who do you find the most responsive to the TEAL methods: girls or boys?

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