Smartphone physics – a smart approach to practical work in science education? : Experiences from a Swedish upper secondary school

University essay from Stockholms universitet/Institutionen för matematikämnets och naturvetenskapsämnenas didaktik

Abstract: In the form of teacher didactical design research, this work addresses a didactical issue encountered during physics teaching in a Swedish upper secondary school. A need for renewed practical laboratory work related to Newtonian mechanics is met by proposing and designing an activity based on high- speed photography using the nowadays omnipresent smartphone, thus bringing new technology into the classroom. The activity – video analysis of the collision physics of football kicks – is designed and evaluated by following a didactical design cycle. The work elaborates on how the proposed laboratory activity relates to the potential and complications of experimental activities in science education, as described in the vast literature on the topic. It is argued that the use of smartphones constitutes an interesting use of new technology for addressing known problems of practical work. Of particular interest is that smartphones offer a way to bridge the gap between the everyday life of students and the world of physics experiments (smartphones are powerful pocket laboratories). The use of smartphones also avoids using unfamiliar laboratory equipment that is known to hinder focus on intended content, while at the same time exploring a powerful tool for data acquisition and analysis. Overall, the use of smartphones (and computers) in this manner can be seen as the result of applying Occam’s razor to didactics: only familiar and readily available instrumentation is used, and skills learned (movie handling and image analysis) are all educationally worthwhile. Although the activity was judged successful, a systematic investigation of learning outcome was out of scope. This means that no strong conclusions can be drawn based on this limited work. Nonetheless, the smartphone activity was well received by the students and should constitute a useful addition to the set of instructional approaches, especially since variation is known to benefit learning. The main failure of the design was an overestimation of student prior knowledge on motion physics (and its application to image data). As a consequence, the activity took required more time and effort than originally anticipated. No severe pitfalls of smartphone usage were identified, but it should be noted that the proposed activity – with its lack of well-defined results due to variations in kick strength – requires that the teacher is capable of efficiently analysing multiple student films (avoiding the feedback process to become overwhelmingly time consuming). If not all student films are evaluated, the feedback to the students may become of low quality, and misconceptions may pass under the radar. On the other hand, given that programming from 2018 will become compulsory, an interesting development of the activity would be to include handling of images and videos using a high-level programming language like Python. 

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