Hello there and thanks for chiming in. I am glad to hear of your observations. Most I speak to about the computer in the classroom experience say "it went great! The student's loved it!"
Most of my work has been done in trying to integrate simple computer animation into basic physics (mechanics)--mostly simple stuff, like animating a single sphere on the screen, a la the vPython approach (although I used physgl.org)....
Here are some things I've noticed about student and computer use (sorry it's so long):
- Observation: Students are challenged by general situations observed
in the mechanics of animation, that deal with turning points, direction
of motion (i.e. +/- signs), limits of motion, object-to-object
interactions, and assessing motion based on different vector quantities.
Why: Students appear confused over issues a computer is and is not able
handle "automatically." Their high expectation is perhaps due to their
familiarity with video games where everything automatically "works."
How to rectify: Keep the computer assignment simple and based on only a
single topic at a time, so students’ expectations can become more
focused, grounded and realistic.
- Observation: When a program doesn’t work, students are quick to "try
this and try that," involving haphazard changes to their code, hoping
something will work.
Why: Students are impatient, wanting quick completion of their work.
Rectify: Encourage students to slow down and think through a problem
before approaching the computer. The theme above serves as our guide to
emphasize the meaning of motion, so we methodically engage them in a
careful conversation about this theme and where they have addressed it
in their code.
- Observation: Many appear unfamiliar with (keyboard) symbols required
when writing code. Indenting code-blocks is rare, as is organization of
on-screen text, and error messages are routinely ignored.
Why: An over-use of consumer applications, particularly on touch
screen-devices where icons and large buttons are the norm and
organization of text (in emails or “texting”) is rarely necessary.
Rectify: Persist with the lessons so students gain more and more
practice (as science majors), gaining a deeper understanding of computer
use beyond consumer-level software.
- Observation: Computer assignments typically require spheres to be
drawn as “the object,” which require a center-point, radius and color.
When a box is needed, many students will simply replace the word
“sphere” with “box”, not realizing that boxes are not characterized by a
radius. We also see difficulty when students consider how to orient an
object about a certain point in space (i.e. to center it). Students are
uncomfortable with the Cartesian coordinate system, as many have not
been previously exposed to the positional effects of the z-axis.
Why: Weak K-12 preparation in the use of spatial coordinates and minimal
experience students with precise visualization needs.
Rectify: Continue to demonstrate ties between geometry and mechanics
(physics), as the location of an object relative to some starting point
is a critical outcome of this course.
- Observation: Recommending to a student to do something like "move the
starting position of your object at <5,0,0> over to the left a little
bit," causes confusion. The same goes for the rendering of a vector
component on an object, where the orthogonal components must be
explicitly set to zero.
Why: Textbook-based curriculums offer no real opportunity for students
to use vectors and immediately see their effects on a problem, and
on-paper assessment is rarely thorough enough to expose incorrect use of
vectors.
Rectify: Insist that vectors are a continual support structure for the
problems, and refine lessons to constantly reflect the use of vectors
throughout.
- Observation: Typing formulas into a computer can be a frustrating
task. Students continually omit the asterisk for multiplication, using
0.5at^2 instead of 0.5at^2 and parenthesis are often overused, with
x=(x)+(v0dt)+((1/2)a*t^2) being common. Expecting the computer to
follow the order of operations is not natural, with many insisting must
be represented as 1/2a(t^2).
Why: The students lack previous experiences of using math as a useful
problem-solving tool; their education up to this point has focused on
studying math. The regular occurrence of this point demonstrates a lack
of adaptability of our students to different technical environments
(here, the computer).
Rectify: Watch for similar issues when students and their use of
large-screen calculators, with which they have much experience with
formula input. Suggest to students that the use of parenthesis
(including balancing them) on a computer is the same as on their math
assignments or calculators.
- Observation: The use of variables before they have been defined is
common. Mixing variable types is problematic as well, such as the
difference between vectors and scalars. Although students are quick to
declare that vectors are quantities with a "magnitude and direction,"
they are just as quick to misuse this meaning, often declaring a force
as a scalar, which would lead to a scalar acceleration when using a=F/m.
This casual use of variables upsets the kinematic equations that expect
acceleration to be a vector.
Why: Pencil and paper mathematics, where most of their experience lies,
is extremely flexible in terms of the presentation of a problem’s flow,
in what must explicitly be written and when. Computer programming is
almost a diametric problem-solving medium.
Rectify: Modifications to software, where physics and math pedagogy are
integrated into the programming language itself. In this case, the
software should identify undefined variables or improperly mixed
data-types and point them out, with associated text/tutorials about why
what they are doing is incorrect.
- Observation: To most students, the computer is mostly a very personal
communication and digital media hub. Sit down with a typical student at
some point while they start up their laptop. In addition to
questionably appropriate wallpaper, the last song or video will resume,
and messaging apps will go crazy with alerts as they update. It might
take a few minutes for the computer and the student to settle down,
before work can begin.
Why: To most, the computer is a digital entertainment hub.
Recitfy: Put level-appropriate "challenging" problems in front of our
students, that will show them that they will not always find efficient
solutions "on the web somewhere" or with point-and-click software. At
some point, software will need to be written to solve a problem.