How to Fortify Your (and Your Kids’) Screen Time with a Dose of Physics

By Rebecca and Chrystian Vieyra

As teachers, students, and their families have navigated online learning this year, science education has taken a bit of a hit. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported that only 38% of teachers who responded to a survey said that they had been able to engage their students in hands-on laboratory activities during the spring semester after the pandemic forced many school buildings to close. Distance teaching and learning can be tough, especially when teachers can’t count on having the right materials in students’ homes.

Fortunately, one thing most families do have in their possession are mobile devices. In the U.S., more than 80% of adults and 96% of 18-29 year olds own at least one device. In turn, teachers and students around the world have increased their use of apps like Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite and phyphox to make data collection with the smartphone’s internal sensors a possibility. With these tools, high school and college students who are comfortable with data representations like graphs can measure the motion of falling objects, visualize the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, and analyze sound waves.

But what about younger children? Researchers know that early science engagement is critical for students to build healthy science identities, and that informal conversations about science (such as with parents and siblings) can have a big impact. Unfortunately, elementary school-aged children are likely missing out on quality science opportunities not only because of the pandemic, but because the limited amount of time that is allotted to science in elementary schools in general.

To help address this challenge, in 2017, our team received an APS Outreach Mini Grant to develop Physics Toolbox Play, an app initially released as a stand-alone, but now incorporated as a specialized mode within the Android version of Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite. Physics Toolbox Play is intended for use by children as young as 8 years old with their families, but is also useful for introductory physics learners at any age!

Physics Toolbox Play consists of seven gamified tasks that introduce learners to sensors, basic physics principles, data representations, and careers that make use of sensors. For example, one task has students explore the use of the ambient pressure sensor (barometer). Children can observe the air pressure decrease as they go up a flight of stairs or climb a hill, and increase as they go back down. A data-verified task then requires that they increase the air pressure around their device by a given amount, which can be accomplished by placing the phone inside of a plastic grocery or ziploc bag and squeezing the air. After correctly answering a simple conceptual question to check for understanding, the app displays simple information about a STEM professional who uses related data sensors, like Sharon McDougle, an astronaut pressure suit technician at NASA. 

As Physics Toolbox Play is embedded within Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite, it’s easy to get access to even more robust tools and visualizations that are not yet even available on commercial science education hardware, like Magna-AR, another mode within Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, that allows users to visualize magnetic fields in 3-D. 

Since 2017, over one million users have downloaded Physics Toolbox Play. We have also used it in multiple outreach contexts, including science fairs, STEM career exploration days, after-school library programs, and conferences like the American Association of Physics Teachers and PhysCon19. The idea of using data-verified challenges with mobile sensors even led to the development of a related prototype app that was used as a science accompaniment to amusement rides at a state fair. However, one of the best places to do science is home, especially in the presence of families.

Completing the Physics Toolbox Play tasks takes around 30-45 minutes for most family groups. Doing the activities requires minimal resources that can be found in the home—a magnetic object (such as a refrigerator magnet), an accessible light source (such as a lamp), a plastic bag or air-tight container, and a pendulum composed of a piece of string tied to a small object (such as a ball or a small plush toy) that can be swung back and forth.

In creating Physics Toolbox Play, we hope to contribute one small experience in the many opportunities for STEM learning that children should have. We are grateful to the APS for supporting our work and for encouraging innovation in outreach. Completing the tasks with Physics Toolbox Play takes only a short period of time, but any spark of interest in physics can last a lifetime!

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