Education is at the core of why we develop Physics Toolbox apps. Mobile sensors, in particular, can introduce individuals to physical principles and the power of technology. Additionally, we recognize that many people balk at the word "physics," and that attitudes about science are often formed when people are quite young. Not only do we want people to be competent physics thinkers who are capable of pursuing any future they desire, but we want them to enjoy it too!
With backing from the American Physical Society through funding from the National Science Foundation, were recently developed a app specifically for use in outreach to people ages 8 to adulthood. Our work is also guided by a well-regarded international advisory board of some of the world's leaders in smartphone physics education. Physics Toolbox Play is now publicly available on the Google Play store, and can be easily used by teachers who want to introduce smartphone sensors to their student for the first time, outreach coordinators at STEM fairs, or even by the intellectually curious working on their own.
The app currently includes seven data-verified challenges that require users to accomplish a variety of simple tasks, such as recording sound intensity within a given range, or finding a magnetic object. Once the task is completed, participants are asked to correctly respond to concept questions, and to read a short narrative about how similar sensors are used in STEM careers today. Minimal resources are needed, and required items include (1) magnetic objects, (2) a light source such as a light bulb or the flash from another smartphone, (3) an object that can serve as a pendulum, and (4) an air-tight container or plastic bag. Additional information, tips, and guidelines for doing a full outreach program can be found in the User's Guide.
We are fortunate that we had the opportunity to recently test Physics Toolbox Play with the general public in two different formats: at a public STEM fest at a high school in Maryland, and at a Family Physics Night with our Alexandria, VA Public Library partner.
What we found from our interactions of participants with Physics Toolbox Play was really exceptional. At the STEM fest, we were in a booth-type format with about another 40+ exhibits and sessions during a drop-in 3 hours. During that time, 30 participants (including children as young as 8 with their families, as well as individual adults), expressed interest in completing the Physics Toolbox Play challenges, and 27 of them successfully completed it. The interest and uptake felt phenomenal, as most participants come to such events expecting fairly short-term interactions at each exhibit. The 30 individuals committed to the challenges despite the 25-30 minutes it took on average to complete the goals of the app. While at first there was some concern on our part about the attention span of children
The most interesting finding was how eager elementary and middle school students were to take on the challenges. We also encountered a number of adults, some of whom openly expressed their aversion to physics, become eager to participate after their children expressed interest or when they saw young children around them completing the challenges successfully and without help. When participants were informally asked what they got out of the experience with the app, a number of students mentioned that they didn't know how many sensors existed (with the magnetometer being mentioned multiple times), and that they were surprised at how sensitive the sound meter could be. Participants were encouraged to come seek help whenever they found a challenge particularly problematic - observed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that many participants (both young and adults) struggled to comprehend the g-Force graph with its multiple plots and required visuo-spacial reasoning requirements. Despite some challenges, all 27 individuals who completed the challenge demonstrated positive attitudes about the experience.
A little over a week later, we presented a more formalized program at the Charles E. Beatly Main Branch of the Alexandria Public Library system. We had a total of 5 different families participate in the event, and all successfully completed the challenges. While the challenges remained the same, the program was opened with a whole-group discussion that helped participants transition from thinking about our five senses to technology-based sensors. All families successfully completed the challenges in under 45 minutes.
The above presents some wonderful opportunities for changing attitudes about physics in the context of a family learning, as well as future considerations for creating challenges that really help learners think more three-dimensionally about data. As we continue to develop, we look forward to ideas that provide a greater level of challenge and a stronger context that encourages students to more directly think about connections to future careers and their own physics identity.
If you are a teacher or have the opportunity to do outreach with Physics Toolbox Play with any variety of groups (Girl/Boy Scouts, after school programs, science fairs, library or community center programs, or even the traditional classroom), we encourage you to let us know how it goes! We welcome you to see some additional photographs from our events in the slideshow below.