Wed 3rd May 2017 - 12:26

Case study on Physics Toolbox App

OEE interviewed Rebecca and Chrystian to ask them more about their popular physics smartphone apps.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and the kind of work you do?

We are a husband and wife team who in 2013 started developing the Physics Toolbox apps. My husband Chrystian is an independent software engineer, and I’m a public high school physics teacher. I worked alongside Chrystian to conceptualise the app and design the user interfaces. As part of my day job I am the K-12 Program Manager at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). I work to support physics educators across the nation. While my work with Physics Toolbox apps is independent from my role at AAPT, there is a significant amount of overlap between my mission in my career and my mission with Physics Toolbox.

What do you love about your job?

What we both love about our work with Physics Toolbox apps is hearing feedback from teachers, students, and researchers. We enjoy hearing about how they use our apps to advance their own knowledge and fascination with the physical world. My own interest in science stemmed from my teachers when I was younger. When our users express the same sentiment, I see the legacy of my own teachers carrying through to others. What we love goes beyond mere appreciation of science. We aim to actively improve science education by helping teachers feel more confident and competent in their practice. We provide tools for science where teachers otherwise might not have any. We recently began collaboration with the I-HELP Liberia Project, a non-profit that provides science teachers with professional development in Africa.

We’re delighted our app is being used as both an educational resource and a research tool for projects. Our tool is being used in many countries for a number of projects including:

  • Engaging citizen scientists in a survey of sound pollution in India.
  • Studying the impact of environmental change on ground cover reflectivity in Scotland.
  • Investigating the role of neonatal survival rates in Australia.

Can you tell us about your Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite app and the issues you wanted to address with it?

We developed our first app Physics Toolbox Accelerometer, for my own high school physics students in Illinois. We were nearing the end of the academic year, and a standard rite of passage for physics students is to complete a project while on a field trip to an amusement park. However, I felt that over the years too many opportunities for learning were lost when students were only equipped with stopwatches. I wanted my students to be able to relate motion data to their movement and physical sensations on rides. Although commercial accelerometers and barometers could be worn on a vest to collect data on rides, the few devices I had in my school were quite expensive, and not nearly sufficient to support the 150+ students we took on a single day.

Most of my students had smartphones which they carried with them. It became our goal to develop a user-friendly app for students.

We quickly realised that we were able to extract much more data from a smartphone or mobile device.

Our vision for our first app eventually evolved into 25 separate apps and a Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite, which has over a dozen generators and sensors that can be used to teach science, technology, engineering, and math concepts through data collection and analysis. What became of this was not only a mission to get students to independently collect data and engage with science on a personal level, but to do so outside of the class in non-traditional environments.

Many of our users are in nations where school technology is not prevalent; therefore our focus has now shifted toward supporting active, inquiry-driven science teaching and learning even when very few lab materials are available.

What were some of the bigger challenges you faced when developing the app and how did you overcome them?

Initially our app evolved slowly as it was developed entirely in our free time. Thanks to user feedback we managed to work out significant issues along the way.

One of the most surprising things for us is that we initially developed the app for high school students; however we get lots of request for new app features from graduate students and even practicing scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and more. Therefore we have had to be very careful to balance the needs of all of our users whilst remembering that education and students are our primary focus.

Our biggest technical challenge is that iOS devices are so prevalent in the United States; it is difficult for teachers to widely use our apps with all of their students. Our more robust apps are supported by Android, and it is very difficult to create parallel apps for both types of mobile devices. With a single developer on our team and limited personal time to develop, this continues to be a major struggle.

Can you tell us more about the stages of developing the app?

Once we found that people were fascinated with accelerometer data, we eventually began to add every possible sensor found on most Android phones - gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, sound meter, and light meter. This allowed teachers to think about how they could use mobile devices as data collection tools for a whole host of inquiry-driven lessons, from measuring how distance away from a speaker or light bulb affects the intensity of sound or light, to determining the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Over time, we saw teachers blog about their novel ideas and publish articles on new lesson plans. We even heard from students about their successful experiments.

With these ideas, we also received requests from teachers who wanted modifications to the app to help them in their teaching. For example, the Physics Toolbox Roller Coaster app is the result of collaboration between us, a leading physics teacher in Italy, and an amusement park company. Other teachers had requests to make the app more usable, such as the ability to display numeric values of sensors rather than time graphs, to make it simpler to use with younger students.

As new features began to appear in specific smartphone models, such as external thermometers, hygrometers, and UV detectors, we continued to add new capabilities. Now we are focusing most of our efforts on refining our most popular app Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite, and building more advanced features for more advanced students who require features such as data filters, statistical calculations, manual data entry for graphs, and frequency analysers.

Do you know how many people are using your app at the moment?

At the time of writing this, we've had around 600,000 downloads. Our app downloads show that they are in use in every country where Google Play is available.

Is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known before starting developing this app? 

A few years ago I was attending a science education conference. While out in town one evening, I started walking back toward the conference centre, and was soon joined by a gentleman who appeared to be heading in the same direction.

We started up a conversation, and he began to tell me about his work in supporting science education centres in Ghana through the Global Sustainable Aid Project. Without my mentioning it, he described how he was using cheap tablets preloaded with apps as a core part of his teacher professional development in areas of high poverty. I shared my business card with him, and I learned that our apps were being used by him! This was such a surprise to me at the time, because we were very early in our work, and also because Google Play was not yet available in Ghana. It was at that moment that I realised the potential high impact of our work far beyond my own borders.

Could you provide us with any materials you have produced or disseminated during the project?

Our article titled Turn Your Smartphone into a Science Laboratory was published in The Science Teacher where we discussed five challenges that use mobile devices to collect and analyse data in physics. We also have an article which was published in The Physics Teacher titled Analysing Forces on Amusement Park Rides with Mobile Devices.

Our website hosts lots of information about our apps including publications and citations, a blog, and useful lesson plans and ideas. We were also delighted to be featured on the podcast Lab Out Loud

To keep up to date with the Physics Toolbox Apps visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

For more information about Open Educational Resources visit our dedicated area.

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