Two ideas for future technology integration in STEM subjects


My students in grade 12 have just completed a unit on capacitors.   I have had to do similar units in both my IB physics class and AP2 physics class.  There are some general differences in the content and theory, but overall they are broadly similar.  This is a unit I remember completing in High School decades ago.

The past:

For me?  As a teenager, the age of BBC computers– 1 per science department (or none!). The Sinclair spectrum 64k home computer or Amstrad.   Lot’s of game playing and an introduction to coding, as you had to type in all the code published in the magazine yourself. I also remember being in school as a 17 year old student and building capacitor circuits with the actual components and clipping it all together with wires and crocodile clips. The hands-on aspect is very important, as I really enjoy learning by doing.  The use of digital stopclocks and manually reading a voltmeter being the main task when collecting the data. The graphs generated enabled us to look at the theory of exponential decay and master the sometimes difficult equations that the syllabus required.   As an alternative, the BBC computer ran some basic capacitor simulation software and you could watch the graphs take shape for the option you chose.  Not really a lot of input required by the student.  Most of High School was really a technology free environment.

Moving on (the last 15 years or so):

Guess what?  30 years later we actually still get down and dirty and build circuits as described above.  You just can’t substitute for that.   

What we also do now is use data loggers and digital meters.  It is much faster, you do not have to correlate times with a voltmeter reading and all the data appears in your graph plotting software.  It is very quick to build circuits, change components and compare multiple sets of data graphically.    It is also useful when students with circuits that are not working have an alternative to go to as a worst case scenario. We are not quick to jump to this, as the identification and diagnosis of the issue is an important teaching point and should not be missed.


The graphing software allows for fast modelling and comparison of graphs, this is a tricky but vital skill and so much easier to do electronically.   Substitution and augmentation from the SAMR model have been the phrases best used to describe education for me in the last 10 years.  Early in my teaching career as pc’s became ubiquitous, teachers took advantage of programs that we bought on floppy drives and then on cd’s.   We added more advanced simulation software eg originally known as crocodleclips physics.   Laptops or PC’s were in short supply so much of the software was either for demonstration, or as a mini activity to complement the hands on building.  

Going 1:1 in the last few years has changed that model completely with easy access to the internet and the availability of online simulations we have really reduced the quantity of external software we now use in school. There is a huge volume available on the internet for free.   Save the web page, write some related questions and you have an activity for the students.   For most teachers, we follow the digital trends and are often behind the students in terms of creativity.  That is where the future lies.   It is a challenge to teach people to be creative.  Students and teachers both need to extend themselves in this domain.  Being a “sage on a stage” is not what is required anymore. Adaptable, creative and collaborative individuals who can pick up and use skills are the new norm for the 21st century.  It does not matter whether they are students or teachers!

We are starting to use more refined simulation software.  I will be honest when I say this, my IB students actually preferred the simulation utilised as a follow up activity after the capacitor circuit building.  Both activities compliment each other.  The students claimed it was faster, simpler and they made fewer mistakes.  It was also easier to see the mistakes in the circuit.  There are many extension circuits and plenty to capture the interest of the electrical and electronic engineers.  The ease of use and graphing tools also help.  Opportunities abound for projects and more sophisticated circuits.  

However, we are never going to move to a situation where you don’t build, components never break, you don’t make mistakes and therefore never get a chance to learn from them.  

The future?

In 5/10/15 years?   Many of the activities, as discussed above will indeed be the same in class.   We will still build capacitor circuits and provide opportunities for data logging.   We will still be using simulations.   What will change will be the opportunities that are provided for the students to modify and redefine the content being taught.   Such an activity for capacitors is possible using the applet above due to the variety of tools and components on the simulation.  More project based learning requiring the students to design and create their own labs will be the norm.

The pace of change is such that it is a challenge to keep up with the resources that are being developed in education.  Here are two possible areas in which  physics teachers (and of other subjects) could dive into:

  1. Software such as Algodoo.   I have only just started playing with the program, but the key idea is on the creation of a mechanical or optical system.  Gravity can be switched on or off, components changed easily etc. The connectivism of the algodoo groups; making lessons, sharing lessons, discussing ideas and the uploading of videos to youtube is a casing point for the strength of communities coming together and the knowledge and skills that can be acquired from it.YouTube Preview Image Communities have been created, ideas shared and skills honed. The knowledge acquired through the exposure to a set of tools that you will not find physically find in the classroom or be able to control in real life. Many very interesting “What if” questions can be generated and then explored.  More real life simulations with non-ideal results.  
  2. The second big change will be the integration of coding into courses.  My AP course allows time for a Capstone project.  Choosing coding (probably Python) would fit well.


    A useful starting website is  and of particular relevance to me is:  AP physics coding Trinket.  We do not run an hour of code but can easily see ways to integrate Python to help reinforce, deepen and extend the physics of my students.  It may even be a useful choice for the Coetail Course 5 final project.

In summary:

Schools in the 21st. century need to continue to provide a variety of opportunities for students to learn in a safe environment.   Schools should maintain their place by investing in the appropriate apparatus, both physical and digital and staff training.   The requirements of the students will be based on their needs for the future and not of our own, living in the past when we are barely keeping up with the present,

Some of the best teachers I have ever worked with have not been early adopters of technology.  There is no substitute for supported, talented educators who have empathy for their students.   The best teachers in the future will be like those just mentioned, but also include teachers who are willing to teach with resources like Algodoo, Python or other similar problem generating and solution creation tools.  

Students graduating from school’s like these will probably be leading the way with their wide skills base (just ahead of their teachers of course!) in this rapidly changing digital landscape.



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