Projects and Practices in Physics

Project Overview

Projects and Practices in Physics (P-cubed) is a community-based learning environment for introductory physics. The project focuses on engaging students in scientific practice through the use of computational modeling and analytical techniques. Researchers aim to transform introductory physics classes from their lecture- and instructor-oriented structure to a model that better benefits students.

Big Ideas

What is P-cubed?

Physics 183, named “Physics for Scientists and Engineers,” is traditionally a lecture-based course, like so many other introductory classes at Michigan State University. Sections are normally very large, and classes are held four times a week for 50 minutes at a time. However, Projects and Practices in Physics is a special section of PHY 183.

One section of P-cubed can support around 40 students, although researchers are hoping to scale up to 100-120. The class meets in 20 two-hour blocks throughout the semester, an attractive schedule compared to regular sections. Another draw for students is that all of the homework and pre-class exercises are online. Rather than listen to lecture during class time, students work on course projects. Though the course projects engage students with principles of mechanics and scientific practices, they cover interesting situations, such as: designing roller coasters or pinball machines, launching a satellite into orbit, and even engineering a movie stunt.

Why do we need P-cubed?

This project seeks to create better learning opportunities for students. But what does this entail?

Group physics is part of it. Having students work together to solve complex problems in a classroom environment is good practice for the types of situations they will be faced with in the workplace. In addition, group-based instruction intrinsically calls for smaller class sizes, inviting students to play a larger role not only in taking charge of their own learning, but also that of their classmates. Changing the power dynamics and ensuring that all students are supported and evaluated will encourage students to be more metacognitive and reflect on their own learning.

Also, it has been shown that students are very adept at changing their participation based on content. The P-cubed curriculum is designed to offer entertaining projects that still teach students what they need to know. And while some of the project storylines are fantastic in nature, few students would leave class wondering “When would I ever need to use this?” Using modeling and computational physics practices to solve these problems will prepare them for future work with physics concepts, and, hopefully, encourage students who take this course to confidently pursue careers that deal with physics.


P-cubed requires students to be able to create scientific models. Modeling is a practice that cuts across all science disciplines. When scientists seek to predict or explain hard-to-observe phenomena, they often create visual or physical representations of their ideas. A model will evolve over time as we gain new knowledge, disproving old theories and developing new ones. In other words, the more we know, the more accurate models we can make. The P-cubed course gives students valuable practice in developing and interpreting models, which will benefit them in pursuing science careers.

Computational Physics & Group Work

Part of what researchers are studying through this project is how teaching computational physics in an introductory course affects students. Computational physics involves modeling things in a way that a computer can understand. This practice is used in all subfields of physics today. As such, many employers wish more students had proficiency in the analytical techniques used in computational physics. P-cubed is trying to meet this need.

Though computational physics is historically didactic—involving lecture and textbook instruction rather than demonstration and laboratory study—researchers on this project are turning it on its head.  Students will be doing computational physics in groups as they solve complex physics questions. They will be completely immersed in doing computation during class, which will prepare them for the future.

In order to practice computation, P-cubed will be using Python coding to teach students. During their course projects, students will be given a problem statement and a partially complete code that doesn’t do what they want. They will then have to write code, the missing part of the equation, to complete it. If done correctly, they will end up with a working model and will be able to complete the assignment.

Student Feedback and Classroom Experience

P-cubed wants to provide a better learning experience for students. That means changing the power dynamics that normally exist in an introductory-level classroom. The students are largely in charge of their own learning, with support from the instructors, as they complete course projects during class. Each student also receives personalized feedback at the end of classes to let them know how they are doing. P-cubed is studying how students adjust to this class support. One ultimate goal is for them to be able to reflect on their own learning.

To date, P-cubed has been taught over four semesters. They have tons of data, from diagnostic assessments that provide pre/post data for students, to recordings of post-class tutor sessions. So far, what researchers are observing is that the P-cubed curriculum is having a measurable effect on student success in physics, and that it does an especially good job in attracting women to a generally male-dominated course.

LAs and Teacher Support

Projects and Practices in Physics employs a learning assistant (LA) model. They are called learning assistants because they are just that—they are there to support students in learning physics, not stand in front and lecture for the whole class period. Instructors could be MSU faculty, graduate students, or even undergraduates. For an undergraduate to qualify, they must have taken the P-cubed course before, done well, and demonstrated their passion and motivation for the course. As project leaders work to scale up the course to be able to accommodate more students at a time, they are also working to groom more LAs, as this system of teaching is providing good results.

The P-cubed Curriculum

The curriculum consists of roughly 15 course projects that will be completed over the course of a semester. There are also online activities for homework that students should complete before coming to class. During class, students will work in groups to develop models of the physical systems described in each project. Students will develop a solution to the proposed problem, which includes both predictions and explanations of those predictions. They are expected to develop these solutions in their groups and ensure that each member of the group understands the process, concepts, and results that are developed for each project.

How to Solve the Problems

There is a specific process that P-cubed instructors suggest that students follow to solve problems and complete the course projects. The process is as follows:

  1. Split one whiteboard (planning board) into 4 sections:

    1. Facts: What info do you have? (Real World)

    2. Lacking: What info do you need to solve this problem and how might you collect evidence to obtain this info? (Model World)

    3. A+A: What approximations and assumptions can you make? (Design System)

    4. Representations: What representations can you generate to help you understand and solve the problem? (Generate Representation)

  2. Use the other whiteboard to construct a useable model world to formulate a plan to solve the problem (Predicting). The plan should include:

    1. What is the key idea or concept behind the problem?

    2. What steps must be taken to solve the problem?

  3. Calculate answer based on plan and model world (Make a prediction)

  4. Test the prediction against the real world (Validating)

    1. Does it make sense or is it reasonable?

  5. If model is not validated, reflect on model world created and restart modeling process.

The process above could be thought of as the agenda for the first class session of the week. The second session for the week would include much the same process but with the addition of Python coding to create a workable model and complete the project.

Course Projects

The course projects ask students to place themselves in sometimes outrageous situations in order to solve complex problems. The goal is to show that learning physics is not only important and that it can be used in many situations, but that it can be fun and creative. Below is a rough list of the course projects for the Fall 2016 semester.

  • Project 1 Part A: Operation river boat crossing
  • Project 1 Part B: Voyager collision course
  • Project 2: Escape from ice station McMurdo
  • Project 3: Geosynchronous orbit
  • Project 4 Part A: Pinball wizard designer
  • Project 4 Part B: Escape from Korath
  • Project 5 Part A: Escape from Korath
  • Project 5 Parts B & C: CSI East Lansing
  • Project 6: Six Flags over East Lansing
  • Project 7 Part A: The Leaning Tower of P-cubed
  • Project 7 Part B: Breakneck – The new roller-coaster at Michigan’s Adventure
  • Project 8: Launching a communications probe
  • Project 9: Post-Apocalypse Now
  • Project 10: Engineering a movie stunt
  • Project 11 Part A: Saving a probe
  • Project 11 Part B: Saving a space station
  • Project 12: You spin me right round
  • Project 13: You spin me right round
  • Project 14: Showdown at the Boar Tiger Corral (?)
  • Project 15: Choose your own adventure


Instructor Materials

With the implementation of the LA teaching practice, the next question for researchers became: how do we provide instructor support? The first step was to create tutor sheets for the LAs. The materials were then refined based on instructors’ experiences, student feedback, and educational research conducted at MSU and elsewhere. The guides will continue to be refined with each teaching of the course to provide the best support available. The instructional materials include:

  • Learning Goals – what students will engage with on a given day
  • Learning Issues (i.e. relevant concepts) – can be projected for students to remind themselves of what is important
  • Tutor Questions – included with the rationale for the solution, will help instructors guide students
  • Common Difficulties – outline of issues that students run into
  • Main Points – identify what students should engage with throughout a project and assist with grading, as not every group may complete a whole project.

P-cubed Partners

The project leader of P-cubed is Danny Caballero from Michigan State University. He is joined by postdoctoral fellow Paul Irving and Michael Obsniuk, a graduate student in Physics Education Research. CREATE for STEM is proud to support them in their efforts. The team has also received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research related to this project.

P-cubed Milestones

The timeline for this project is August 2014 – July 2017. So far, P-cubed has had steady success, with many undergraduates wanting to participate. It draws many chemistry and math students in addition to those studying engineering. And though the sciences are seen as a male-dominated culture, P-cubed classes are made up of a range from 35-50% female students compared to the usual 20% found in physics courses.

Project leaders have produced many posters and papers based on the research gathered on this project and have presented them at the Physics Education Research Conference. However, they aren’t stopping there. They are pursuing more grants in relation to P-cubed work and hope to develop curriculum for PHY 184, the physics course that follows the P-cubed PHY 183 course.

Design Principles

The principles used to guide the development of the materials include:

  • Shifting from lecture-based to group work-based classrooms for introductory courses
  • Promoting an understanding of the analytical techniques used in computational physics
  • Supporting instructors in teaching non-traditional class settings
  • Providing feedback and support for students that encourages metacognitive reflection