P Cubed: Physics for Any Situation



“Your team has emerged from your underground bunker to find a deserted wasteland. Well, it's nearly deserted….


“Your team is attacked by wild boar-tigers. While fighting them off, you manage to slay one of them and collect it for sustenance. Your team returns to the entrance of the bunker only to find it is locked and no one is answering the door.


“Your team takes refuge near a fantastic oil fire. It's getting cold and you are hungry. Your captain suggests you cook the beast using an age old technique: boiling water in a dirt pit. You'd like to avoid the carcinogens associated with cooking the beast directly over the oil fire. Your team finds a pile of hard and soft rocks near the oil fire. To properly cook the beast, you need to achieve a cooking temperature of 380K. Design the pit.”


The average student isn’t planning on cooking “boar-tigers” in a post-apocalyptic wasteland any time soon, but the students enrolled in a special section of Physics 183 find that the practices used to solve questions like this are nonetheless quite similar to what physicists do in real life. Known as P3 (pronounced “P cubed”), “Projects and Practices in Physics” is an experimental version of MSU’s introductory physics course, offering numerous research opportunities for faculty while providing students with a memorable, engaging environment for learning physics.


“To enjoy the class you have to enjoy learning and challenges,” says Katie Wampler, who took the very first iteration of P3 as an underclassman, with no physics experience under her belt. Now, as a third year student, she’s back in the class working as a Learning Assistant. These “LAs” are undergraduates who have already gone through the course and act as guides to assigned groups of students. Since P3 takes place in a moderately sized room that seats forty—a far cry from the large lecture halls that normally house introductory physics courses—this arrangement allows for greater interaction between the students and their instructors.



Every class session revolves around solving one or two problems involving everything from roller coaster engineering to car accident investigations to satellite launches. Wampler finds the problem-based nature of the course to be far more compelling than many of her other science classes. Even at their most creative, the problem scenarios always require application of real physics principles. At the heart of the “boar-tiger” scenario, for example, is a question of finding thermal equilibrium.


Just as physics is normally practiced in the real world, students operate in teams and have free access to the internet while they work. A large dry-erase board sits at the center of each team’s table, so students can sketch out formulas and drawings as they explain their theories to their teammates. An additional dry-erase board lies propped against a wall, divided into quadrants to aid the diagramming of ideas.


The problem of the day is posted online shortly before each class session, so students get to work as soon as they walk through the doors. Because pre-class homework and video lectures prepare the students for the day’s material, no class time is taken up by lectures. The role of the teachers is to circle the room and check in with each group as they work, answering questions and ensuring that each student is engaged and on-track. Students receive detailed written feedback each week from the instructors, letting them know how they’re doing in the course.


For some of the problems, students are given a core piece of Python programming code but without the specific formula that represents the physics concept at the heart of the problem. The learning goal is not just to figure out how to include the relevant formula into the code but also how to work together in identifying the right formula and expressing it in Python. Once they figure out how to express the physics formulas they’ve learned as code, students can add to the incomplete program until it does what they want.



The coursework of P3, unique for both its emphasis on group work and for its use of computational physics, is the brainchild of physics professor Danny Caballero, post-doctorate fellow Paul Irving, and Michael Obsniuk, a graduate student in Physics Education Research. Modeling systems in a way that a computer can understand permeates all subfields of physics, which is why the instructors feel it’s important to teach this skill as soon as possible. Furthermore, proficiency in the analytical techniques used in computational physics has been cited as a skill employers wish more students knew.


P3 represents an “incredible opportunity for the students and the team members,” says Caballero. With the enormous amount of data that’s been collected through conducting the course (over 2TB per semester), the researchers associated with the P3 project have had the chance to pursue a wide variety of interests. Irving, who earned his Ph.D. in 2011 from the Dublin Institute of Technology, is investigating the relationship between the feedback received at the end of each week and the students’ experience in the class. With multiple sources of data, including interviews and audio/video recordings, Irving is hoping to arrive at a clearer idea of what effective feedback looks like. Obsniuk is studying how students work together in groups to solve physics problems with computers. He’s interested in why students take the approaches they do. Startup funding from CREATE for STEM paid for the initial supports for collecting data; another pending grant from the National Science Foundation would support continued graduate and post-graduate research on the project.


Next fall, the P3 team will conduct a section of the course that seats one hundred. The team has planned to upscale their course since the beginning, especially given how most group-based, student-centric courses across the country seat at least one hundred students. The homework, pre-lecture videos, and notes are completely online, so all that’s left to expand the scale even further is to bring in new faculty. The instructors can imagine computational methods-based coursework coming to play a role in other classes at MSU in the future. Physics 184, which deals with electricity and magnetism, will probably be the next course to adopt this style.


The priority of the P3 project, Caballero says, is to provide “better learning opportunities for our students.” He and his team intend to create a classroom power dynamic where everyone’s ideas matter—a dynamic not often present in lecture courses. They also hope to instill a sense of awareness in his students about how they learn. This ability to think meta-cognitively about how they determine the veracity of an idea will better prepare them for any sort of future study—or post-apocalyptic disaster scenario.


Article by Josh Anderson. Photos by Christopher Reimann.


Josh Anderson is pursuing a degree in Professional Writing at Michigan State University. You can view more of his work at joshanderson.me.