Smartphones as pocket labs for DIY experimental physics MPTL 2015 Munich

 mptl version 3   :  Slides of my talk at the 20th International Conference on Multimedia in Physics Teaching and Learning Munich Germany

Smartphones as pocket labs for DIY experimental physics 

Introduction and Theory

There are about 2 billion smartphones in the world. This is not only an avenue to teach experimental physics, but equally important, it provides new pedagogical possibilities. There are up to 10 sensors in a single smartphone, all real-time connected to digital world. Among them, 3D accelerometer and 3D gyroscope enable physics students to do all key experiments in Classical Mechanics, a course taught in all universities in the world. The sensor performances are so high that quantitative experiments can be done in a “frugal environment”: pendulum experiment with detailed numerical analysis of data is done by suspending the smartphone to its own charge cable held in hand. For all experiments, no more specific apparatus (maybe a pillow on the floor…) is needed than a smartphone to collect data and a PC to treat them either in real-time or after experiment.

Concept and Implementation

Following pioneering works1, we have identified and developed 5 basic sessions related to major pedagogical objectives in Classical Mechanics: 1D movements (free fall and elevator), rotation (turn table or salad spinner), pendulum, oscillations (using a rubber elastic) and study of tramway trajectory. The use of smartphones enables a real time and interactive representation of collected data on laptops. For this, we have developed a free software iMecaProf that can be used with iPhone and Android smartphones. For a circular motion, as the smartphone rotates, its orientation is represented real-time on a PC screen together with acceleration and velocity vectors in lab and smartphone frames (using polar coordinates) and with energies versus time (potential, kinetic and mechanical energies). The taught formal description becomes an interactive representation used in real time to even control by hand the experiment. Students finally explore direct connections between Classical Mechanics and daily life: smartphones use sensors whose data are analyzed within the frame of Classical Mechanics for their every day uses.

Objectives and Assessment

Based on rich possibilities offered by smartphone to teach physics, the pedagogical contents is always evolving: i) interactive and real-time representation of data based on formal description ii) quantitative numerical treatment after data collection, iii) student innovation especially when defining frugal experimental environments, iv) impact of sensor performances and limits on results.

A program has been developed on this basis for first year students in sciences at the University of Grenoble. Last year, this experimental teaching with smartphones involved 25 students during 20 hours and this year, 50 students. We have not yet entered a careful assessment beyond student engagement and apparent satisfaction. It is a next step to find a collaboration to do it.

1- J.Kuhn and P.Vogt, Column Editors of iPhysicsLabs in The physics teacher: