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2013 July 3

In defense of programming for physics and math teachers

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:14
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In response to a comment I made on his blog, Mark Guzdial wrote

I am complete agreement that computing should really be taught within teachers’ disciplines, such as math or physics. Computing is a literacy. We write and do mathematics in science. We should also do computing in science.

Current constraints make that hard to get to.

  • Why should mathematics or teachers want to use computing? It’s harder (in the sense, that it’s something new to learn/use). And it doesn’t help them with their job. Remember the posts I did on Danny Caballero’s dissertation? Computing does lead to mathematics and physics learning, but different from what currently gets tested on standardized tests. Why should people who make up those tests change? To draw more people into computing? Recall how much luck we had getting CS into the new science education frameworks.
  • Who would pay for it? We can get Google to pay for more high school teachers to learn CS — that leads to more computer scientists that they might hire. We can get NSF’s CISE directorate to pay for CS10K — that leads to more CS workers and researchers. Who pays for math and physics teachers to learn computing, especially when learning computing doesn’t help them with their jobs?
  • Finally, in most states, computer science is classified as a business topic. Here in Georgia, the Department of Education did announce that only business teachers could teach computer science. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requires teachers to be “high qualified” in a subject to teach it. If CS is classified as business, then it makes sense (to administrators that don’t understand CS) that only business teachers are highly qualified to teach it. Barbara Ericson fought hard to get that changed, since some of our best CS teachers are former math and science teachers (who date back before CS became classified as business). I don’t know if, in other states, math and physics teachers are disallowed from teaching CS.

It’s a big, complicated, and not always rational system.

That the system is big and irrational is not news to anyone, and the Georgia Department of Education may be about as silly as Departments of Education get.  I have no idea how to fix dysfunctional government bureaucracies, though, so I won’t comment further on that point.

But I disagree on a couple of things:

  • Learning to use programming effectively can help physics and math teachers do their jobs better.
  • Companies like Google and federal agencies like NSF will pay for teachers to learn computational methods, not just for straight CS teachers.

For the first point, I’m going to have an uphill battle to convince Mark, because he has a carefully done research study that Danny Caballero did for his PhD on his side, and I don’t have 4 years of my life to spend working full time on the question.

I read Mark’s posts about Caballero’s dissertation, I even wrote about them when the posts first came out (and I started another draft post, but abandoned it).  I agree that Caballero’s results are not encouraging, but I don’t believe that a single experiment at 2 sites decides the issue for all time. Caballero showed that a couple of mechanics courses that taught physics using Matter and Interactions did not spend enough time on the concepts of the Force Concepts Inventory (a small but important subset of the concepts of a first physics course), and so students did not learn as much on those topics as in a traditional class. He also showed that students made typical programming errors that reflected poor understanding of both physics and programming, and that students had less favorable attitudes toward computational modeling at the end of the course than at the beginning. The programming errors Caballero found were typical of the errors seen after a first programming course also—if we can’t teach students to avoid those errors when the entire course is focused on programming, it is not surprising that a physics course in which programming is a small add-on also produced students who can’t program well.

Caballero’s thesis study was pretty convincing that those implementations of the intro physics course using computational approaches were not very successful at teaching the concepts of the Force Concepts Inventory. I’m not convinced that the problems are inherent to using computational approaches to teach physics though—just that these courses had not yet been optimized.  It is indeed possible that Mark’s conclusion (computing doesn’t help teach physics or math) is true, but I think that is too big a generalization from Caballero’s results.

Note that an earlier paper on which Caballero was an author showed that the M&I students showed better gains than students in a traditional course on a BEMA test (Electricity and Magnetism, rather than the mechanics topics of the FCI). So even Caballero’s results are not as uniformly negative as Guzdial paints them.

Personally, I liked the Matter and Interactions book, and I think that its approach helped me and my son learn physics better than we otherwise would have, but we’re hardly the typical audience for a first calculus-based physics course, so I don’t want to generalize too much from our experience either—Caballero’s results (positive and negative) are from 1000s of typical students, not 2 very unusual ones.

There are currently teachers in both physics and math looking at programming as a way both to motivate students and to teach physics and math better.  The spread of the ideas in the community is slow, because the teachers are getting little support, either from fellow math and physics teachers or from the computer science community.  People like Mark say “some of our best CS teachers are former math and science teachers”, but also say “it doesn’t help them with their job.”

Teaching physics and math teachers to program can help them do their jobs better—even if they don’t teach programming to students! There are other ways that programming helps them—for example, Matt Greenwolfe spent a lot of time programming Scribbler 2 robots to be better physics lab tools than the usual constant-velocity carts. Other physics teachers are doing simulations, writing video analysis programs (I contributed a little to Doug Brown’s Tracker program), improving data logging and analysis programs, and so forth.  A lot of math teachers are using GeoGebra to make interactive geometry applets (and, more rarely, to have students do some programming in GeoGebra).

As for my second point, there are already many corporate and federal programs to try various ways of improving STEM teaching (the CS portion of that is actually tiny).  To convince them to spend some of that money on teaching math and physics teachers to program, we may need some better use cases than the intro mechanics courses that Caballero studied—or we may just need to re-examine those courses after the instructors have done some optimization based on the feedback from Caballero’s study.


  1. Let me unpack a bit what I tried to say in my blog. If the job of a mathematics or physics teacher is defined as making sure that their students achieve their educational objectives, as measured by existing tests, then no — computing is unlikely to help them with their job. That’s the contractual definition of a high school teacher’s job, and that’s what I’m talking about when I say that computing doesn’t help them with their job. However, computing absolutely helps students learn physics and mathematics differently, and in important ways. Danny’s work is just one example of this. One of my favorite papers in this space is Bruce Sherin’s (see who showed that Physics students learn different things (like balance in a system) from equations than they learn from programs (like causality and sequence). I really like M&I and would like to see it adopted further.

    Computing can be used by physics and mathematics teachers to help their students learn — absolutely. If we want teachers to be rewarded for doing this (see Garth’s comment in my blog about incentives), then the goals of teaching with computing have to align with the objectives and tests of mathematics and physics. How do we convince mathematicians and physicists that a computational approach is better? How do we get the objectives and tests changed? That’s the challenge, and that Next Generation Science Standards ignored computing makes that challenge harder. Most STEM funding today supports NGSS or Common Core, neither of which include computing.

    Georgia’s Department of Education is not the silliest I’ve seen. I believe that computer science is also classified as Career and Technical Education in California, too. Can a teacher certified in mathematics or physics teach CS in California? I honestly don’t know. In South Carolina, the HW CS teachers I’ve met or heard about do come from the business side, not from mathematics or science.

    I’m completely in favor of computing across the curriculum. I’ve been working in this space long enough to see some of the problems. We have to get the incentives right.

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2013 July 3 @ 10:37 | Reply

    • So few schools in California teach CS, that I have no idea what the requirements here are. My son had one high-school CS course at a private school (so not subject to the certification requirements), and the only other CS course I’ve heard of in the county is at a charter school.

      According to there is no subject credential in CS in California, only the following:
      Biological Sciences (Specialized)
      Chemistry (Specialized)
      Foundational Math
      Foundational General Science
      Geosciences (Specialized)
      Health Science
      Home Economics
      Industrial & Technology Education
      Languages other than English
      Physical Education
      Physics (Specialized)
      Science: Biological Sciences
      Science: Chemistry
      Science: Geosciences
      Science: Physics
      Social Science

      It is not clear to me what certification a teacher would need in California to teach CS. Probably Math, based on

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 July 3 @ 12:00 | Reply

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the overall sentiment in this post. Computing is important for all students of science and for science teachers. However, as you say, I do think my dissertation work has been misconstrued a bit in this post. So, let me clarify.

    The inventory you mention measures a small slice of mechanics taught in introductory physics. It’s been an important slice, but maybe now it’s time to think beyond it. What are students learning above and beyond this assessment? In M&I, they are learning about modeling, computing, and connecting the two. My work shows that the present implementation of M&I doesn’t produce great gains on this assessment, that students make mistakes in their code, and that they are less inclined towards computing after instruction.

    So what? We are getting to teach students how science is done and they are using computing to investigate models. Now, this implementation is not the most polished one, which means we have a good way to go. But, that’s OK, because we are not going to fix all these issues overnight. We have been working on them for the last two years in various contexts. But, we need to figure out how to teach science and computing together. And we need to figure out how to do it well.

    So, I’ll point you to a few other publications on computing in physics that I’ve written. Two concern high school, and another deals with physics majors. The high school work shows we can implement ideas from my dissertation work at the high school level (as others are doing). Moreover, we find that students who know physics and computing ideas can make good models of systems and are not memorizing lines of code. In my dissertation work, we didn’t do any qualitative work like student interviews, but it’s clear that doing so is necessary. The work with physics majors is one of the first forays into integrating computing in upper-division physics. We show that a new model for implementation can positively affect student attitudes.

    High School:


    Comment by Danny Caballero — 2013 July 3 @ 19:26 | Reply

  3. In physics education research at NCSU we began to see real sense-making in the context of computational modeling after recent major revision of the VPython tasks, so progress is being made. Also, the students like it much better than before. As Danny indicates, it’s taking a lot of work to figure out how best to teach computational modeling in the intro physics course, but we’re doing better now than a few years ago.

    As for Mark’s nice comment, “I really like M&I and would like to see it adopted further,” I’m happy to report that a recent report from our publisher, Wiley, shows about 120 institutions using M&I, whereas I thought the number was about half that. Moreover, 3.5 years after it first became available, the 3rd edition of the textbook has just experienced a 25% increase in sales, which is utterly unheard of in the publishing business, as normally by this time sales of new books would have dropped to zero. The number of large institutions using M&I in a significant way (beyond, say, an honors course) is small because it is difficult for big schools to make big changes. These currently include NCSU, Purdue, Georgia Tech, U Texas Austin, Cal State Long Beach, U Maryland Baltimore County, and Carnegie Mellon. Many of the small schools using M&I are quite prestigious: Wellesley, Haverford, Union, Carleton, St. Olaf, etc.

    On CS as business, a sad anecdote. A high school physics teacher told me that she used to teach a programming course until they got a new principal who killed it because “I don’t want the kids to be wasting time learning keyboarding.”

    Comment by Bruce Sherwood — 2013 July 4 @ 08:25 | Reply

  4. […] Danny Caballero left a comment on my blog with pointers to three preprints of papers he’s been a co-author […]

    Pingback by Caballero on teaching physics with computation | Gas station without pumps — 2013 July 4 @ 10:28 | Reply

  5. […] In defense of programming for physics and math teachers […]

    Pingback by MathTwitterBlogosphere, mission 1 | Gas station without pumps — 2013 October 6 @ 19:19 | Reply

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