Smartphones in the classroom 2: Teaching Physics

Do you remember the time when cellphones’ only use was to make and receive calls while out and about?

Martin Cooper's cellphone

Martin Cooper’s cellphone

Mobile phones were originally created to do that, no more, no less. Similarly, sensors in smartphones were first put there to fulfil very specific roles. The accelerometer allows to re-orient your screen when you move your device, the lux meter is responsible of adjusting the brightness of your screen according to the light level of your environment, and so on.

While cellphones do nowadays much more than enabling calls on the go, sensors in smartphones are being repurposed for means entirely different to their primary functions. Our WeatherSignal app crowdsources meteorological data from mobile sensors such as the barometer and the battery temperature sensor. mHealth applications Instant Heart Rate and Sleep Time by Azumio use the camera and the accelerometer respectively to track heart rate and sleeping patterns. As for the  uses of the microphone, some of which we discussed in a previous blogpost, a recent paper describes low-cost interfaces that attach to the smartphone’s microphone and speaker and are commanded by sound with 99% accuracy.

Sensing the world with WeatherSignal

Sensing the world with WeatherSignal

These sensing capabilities make the smartphone a powerful data collection device to probe physical phenomena, and as such, an attractive tool for physics teachers. To get an idea of the possibilities and the challenges in welcoming the smartphone to the Physics classroom, let’s meet some of the teachers who have already done so.

  • Jochen Kuhn and Patrik Vogt

Jochen Kuhn from Kaiserlautern University of Technology and Patrik Vogt from the University of Education Freiburg are among the first advocates of the use of the smartphone to teach physics. They are the creators and curators, since 2012, of iPhysicsLabs, a column in The Physics Teacher magazine dedicated to mobile devices and their implementation as experimental tools in the classroom. Jochen and Patrik have themselves authored about a dozen papers describing a range of experiments where cellphones act as data-collecting, sensing devices. They propose, for example, studying acoustic phenomena with a smartphone microphone, analysing free fall with the accelerometer and using the camera to make infrared radiation visible.

  • Arturo Marti and Martín Monteiro

Two other frequent collaborators of iPhysicsLabs are Uruguayan physics teachers Martín Monteiro (ORT) and Arturo Marti (University of the Republic). A list of their publications can be found on Martín’s website. My personal favourite, co-authored with Fernando Tornaría, shows how smartphones can explain the physics at work behind the SpillNot®, a seemingly “magical” device to avoid spills while carrying a mug of hot coffee. To further encourage the adoption of the smartphone by high school physics teachers, Arturo and Martín, together with colleagues Cecilia Cabeza and Cecilia Stari, have also given a series of workshops. These have been met with a lot of interest, as you can judge by the pictures below.

Smartphones, physics...

Smartphones, physics…


and mate!

and mate!

  • Philippe Jeanjacquot

Remember that amazing brochure on Smartphones in Science Teaching we mentioned in the first article of this series? Well, Philippe Jeanjacquot is one of the creative minds that came up with ideas such as using smartphones to understand the parallax effect, estimate astronomical distances and measure speeds. Philippe works both as a high school physics teacher and a researcher at Lyon’s ACCES, the instructional design team of the Institut Français de l’Education. If you have a fair understanding of French you should definitely have a look at his ACCES’s webpage, where you’ll find detailed description of activities, useful app recommendations and programs for his latest workshops. Philippe’s own experiences using smartphones with his high school students were, as he told me, extremely positive. The kids were delighted to use their phones and realised what a powerful tool these are to make science.

  • Rebecca Vieyra

Although now an Albert Einstein Distinguished Fellow placed at NASA Aeronautics, Rebecca Vieyra has taught high school physics for seven years, and it’s not hard to tell when you talk to her that it is her passion. She’s busy as a bee and regularly updates her Google+ page on Mobile Sensor Apps with the latest news and ideas in the field. Herself and her husband Chrystian have created a series of really cool apps, the Physics Toolbox, that allow to collect data from all the phone’s sensors. Oh, and somehow she’s also found time to write a monumental book with her dad (also a physics teacher), recently released on the Kindle store.

Rebecca was using mobile devices a lot in her teaching: for general internet access, practice quizzes, homework submission… and of course, for their sensing capabilities. A very interesting activity was conducted on the occasion of the annual field trip to the Six Flags amusement park : students used their phones to gather data from the accelerometer while on a ride, then analysed it relating it to their physical sensations. The kids experienced some frustrations – the data wasn’t always clean, there were some calibration issues – but overall they enjoyed themselves while collecting meaningful data and learned to use their phones in completely new ways.

Measuring forces outdoors

Measuring forces outdoors with mobile devices

Sensors in smartphones are growing steadily – so why not make of them a source of information on the world around us? At OpenSignal we’re currently working on a Mobile Sensors Database and always keeping an eye out for new developments, such as the gas sensor to be released by Sensirion next year. There are lots of apps that allow to harness the power of smartphones’ sensors. One I came across recently is the very promising Lab4Physics. Created by young scientists from Chile, it aims to enable students to perform hands-on physics experiments, particularly in schools lacking lab equipment.

Cellphones started as tools to help us communicate. They still are nowadays, but they’re also much more: incredible sensing devices, a small lab in your pocket. The work of teachers like Jochen, Patrik, Martín, Philippe and Rebecca, among others, shows that smartphones in the classroom can be as little or as much as we make of them.

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