Schuylkill professor and team aim to revolutionize physics education

Global team has received the 2020 Excellence in Physics Education award from the American Physical Society
Michael Gallis stands in front of a white board with fractions written on it as he points to a projection screen showing the physics of an amusement park's pirate ship ride.

Michael Gallis, associate professor of physics at Penn State Schuylkill, shows how his work in the Open Source Physics Project can be completely customized for user needs. The no-cost code helps physics educators by providing them with a visual accompaniment to explain physics theory.

Credit: Samantha L. Bower

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. – Michael Gallis, associate professor of physics at Penn State Schuylkill, has won the 2020 Excellence in Physics Education award from the American Physical Society as part of an 18-person team revolutionizing physics education.

The team has won the award for their work on the Open Source Physics (OSP) Project, which is a group of physicists and educators working to provide no-cost, high-quality, computer-based curricular resources to engage students in physics, computation and computer modeling.

The project began in 2002 when Wolfgang Christian, unofficial team leader, and Mario Belloni, both faculty members of Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop interactive, web-deliverable curricular material using Java Applets known as Physlets.

Although Physlet‐based material works well for general purpose, ready‐to‐run curricular material, and was translated into multiple languages, it is not well suited for computational physics education because computational educators have specialized curricular needs that can be addressed only by having access to source code. Thus, a second NSF grant was awarded in 2006 to support the development of an open-source, object-oriented Java code library. This OSP Project code library made it easy to incorporate numerical analysis, 2D and 3D visualization, and graphical user input-output components while also acting as a good platform for developing new educational software.

Gallis contributed educational simulations, or models, and curriculum materials to the project. “These models are always simple, always set up so they’re easily modified,” he explained. As such, the way he uses these materials may significantly differ from the way another educator may use them.

In his classroom, Gallis and his students conduct hands-on experiments to test gravity — sometimes that means dropping basketballs and yoga balls from a fixed height, or dropping rubber-band bungee jumpers from a high point on the library steps. With Javascript simulations and video analysis tools developed by and available through the OSP Project, the students explore more complex physical concepts throughout the semester using these initial experiments as their foundation. Through simple experiments, Gallis and his students explore complex concepts, such as calculating drag coefficient, air resistance, friction and buoyancy.

Gallis has been teaching at Penn State Schuylkill since 1990, and the technologies he uses today have evolved in tandem. “It used to be much harder to study physics concepts interactively,” Gallis said, observing that physical theory is much harder to understand without the visual accompaniment his students enjoy today.

Since the beginning of his educational career in the 1980s, Gallis has shifted from traditional research to educational research, which is a new paradigm in the STEM educational world. “As physics educators, we should be automatically involved in creating the curriculum,” he said, noting that “20 years ago, it was a much tougher sell hiring faculty who specialized in physics education” as opposed to traditional research.

“By necessity, we are so focused on our research that our teaching side is often of lesser importance,” he concluded.

By making open-source physics materials more accessible, Gallis and his teammates are helping to usher in an era where physical concepts are easier to understand and build upon. The OSP Project members’ love for toys and tinkering has the potential to revolutionize physics education and, in turn, the way students and professionals approach the science itself.

APS will grant the OSP Project team their award at the society’s April 2020 meeting in Washington, D.C.

Learn about and experience Gallis’s simulations and models: