AN INTERACTIVE JOURNEY THROUGH MODERN PHYSICS
Team: 1 | Duration: 12 weeks | Read time: 15 min.
In a nutshell, science is presented as a collection of facts, formulae and experiments. However, often times, the stories that led to the discovery of these scientific breakthroughs are left out of the learning process. There is a need for a digital experience that promotes learning through the process of scientific inquiry in the field of modern physics.
I decided to work within the realm of modern physics because visualizing Quantum Mechanics and Relativity as concepts in the form of mathematical facts and formulae is a challenge (based on survey results). Everything in the Quantum World occurs at a nanoscale and the unpredictability is different from what we experience in the real world, making it difficult to comprehend. (I won’t lie… a few times, I stepped back and asked myself, “WHY did I decide to implement this with a beast like Quantum Mechanics?” And ironically, that would help me realize the need for a simpler form of understanding the subject. Vicious circle.)
I worked on the entire project from conception to implementation myself, under the guidance of Professor Nassim JafariNaimi, an awesome design professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. My work included everything from user research to design and prototyping to testing.
Understanding the domain and users
In order to understand if there really was a need for a resource in the field of modern physics, I took field notes and conducted a survey. Designing within a field in which one has little to no prior knowledge can be a challenge and thus, I found it very helpful to understand more about the domain using these initial methods.
1. Identifying the target audience
The primary audiences that I wanted to target were college students who were studying modern physics and wanted to know more about a certain topic and students who may not necessarily have been studying the subject but may be interested in learning more about it. In a nutshell, anyone with an interest in learning modern physics should be able to use this app.
2. Field notes
I began by reaching out to 4 professors who taught undergraduate modern physics, classical physics and quantum mechanics at Georgia Tech and asked if I could sit in on their lectures and just observe how students are taught and how they learn principles of physics. One professor was particularly interested in my project and was kind enough to invite me to attend one of his lectures. He taught them using a blackboard and chalk and explaining the nature of waves using formulae. They also learned how to derive a complex formula using concepts they had learned earlier on in class. This method of learning was not at all unexpected but while taking notes, I observed that not everybody was able to imbibe these concepts at the same level and looking at those giant equations on the board did not seem very engaging. This is a typical in-class learning situation. The professor seemed very excited about the idea I proposed and even let me send out a survey to his students to help me understand whether they feel the need for such a resource.
To understand more about the current resources available and how students currently perceive modern physics concepts, I sent out a survey to students in the aforementioned professor’s class.
The questions in the survey revolved around the following key areas:
Difficulty level of modern physics as a topic.
Whether current resources can be improved.
What resources are currently being used.
What features students would like to see incorporated if resources could be improved.
The survey had an open-ended question asking students about the kind of challenges they face while studying modern physics. Some interesting responses were:
“One of the biggest challenges of Quantum Mechanics is that it's counterintuitive. On such small scales everything behaves differently from what we are used to and therefore sometimes is hard to grasp and picture. Also the different notation contributes to its difficulty. “
“The notation and logic are very different from my usual way of thinking. I am much more of a visual learner, but so many things in QM are just mathematical or very hard to picture, so it puts me at a disadvantage.”
“You are constantly trying to compare quantum concepts to the classical ones thinking this analysis as natural but you cant, not having something familiar involving quantum physics to hold on to makes it really unkind at the beginning.”
The results from the survey confirmed my initial hypothesis and clearly depicted the need for a resource to better understand modern physics.
Literature review and research
This literature review helped me understand many different dimensions of resources that are currently used to learn modern physics concepts:
Apart from the theoretical resources, I observed technological resources that are available in the market currently. I listed the key features of each of these resources and observed what makes the resource successful. Following this, I also created a table that highlights the key features of these applications and helped me understand how my app compares to them.
Iterative design and evaluations
Brainstorming and sketching
Based on the discovery phase, I sketched out a diverse range of features that I thought would be essential to the design of this app. These features include a timeline, descriptions about scientists, tooltip to explain jargon in a simplified manner and animations to show scientists performing experiments.
These sketches were followed by low-fidelity wireframes made in Balsamiq, that focused primarily on integrating all the key elements seamlessly. These are slightly more refined versions of the sketches that highlight features such as the timeline, scrolling through the iPad interface along the timeline, a lab-like setting and questions to test the student’s knowledge. These mockups helped me identify certain key features that would enhance learning through the app:
Curated content that helps present modern physics information in a simple yet accurate manner.
Interactive experiments that students can play around with in a lab-like setting.
Storytelling aspect that would help promote learning through the process of scientific inquiry.
Timeline of stories to help depict the evolution of modern physics.
Iterative prototyping and testing
After creating basic mockups and gauging the key components that would enhance interaction with the app, I began a process of iterative prototyping. In each iteration, I would create a design based on feedback from the prior ones and then evaluate the new design with users.
During Iteration 1, I conducted an Expert Review with 1 Design professor and 2 Modern Physics professors at Georgia Techand got feedback about the key features, layout and accuracy about scientific content
During Iteration 2, I conducted 1 pilot test and 2 user testing sessions with potential student users to get an idea about whether the flow of the app, the design decisions and flow of the interview questions
During Iteration 3, I conducted 8 user testing sessions to understand if students are able to comprehend the concepts explained in the app
High-level findings included:
This app could be used as a supplemental tool instead of primary learning tool: A common theme that occurred was that participants could not imagine using this app to learn in-depth information about modern physics but thought that this would be extremely useful as a source of information that could be used in conjunction with textbooks. feedback suggested that this might be a helpful tool to carry around in a science museum and understand more about the history of science.
Interactivity and content style as a means to encourage scientific inquiry: The way in which content was organized was such that users were taking on a challenge more than following instructions. This was a deliberate design decision that involved presenting information in the form of clues that made the steps seem enigmatic and made them want to interact with the experiment more.
Situates the physical with the digital: The mobile app was able to achieve a balance between real and interactive in its style and students liked the fact that the design was encouraging them to play around with the interface. The icons resemble real-life objects but have a bit of a shadow under them to depict that they can be picked up, dragged and dropped.
Need for more intuitive micro-interactions: The transitions between screens were not apparent due to Iterative design and evaluations which participants did not realize that content was changing and they focused more closely on interacting with the lab setting instead.
Different perspectives of beginners v/s physics experts: An example of this is, when beginners read the text “Do something to set up an electric charge”, they were easily able to understand that they need to turn on the battery but when experts read it, they mentioned that there are electric charges all around us so this might not be a scientifically accurate sentence and that it could be termed as “Do something to set up a potential difference.” This difference in reaction was something that I did not predict earlier and am glad that I was able to observe it eventually. Possible solutions are to use more jargon but explain it using tool tips so that both sets of users can comprehend it or to create two modes of the same app - Beginner and Advanced
After conducting three rounds of evaluations, I went on to refining the third prototype by making small changes to the visual design and content. I presented this prototype eat IxDA Atlanta Lightning Talks and GVU Demo Day at Georgia Tech and received great feedback.
Check out my process book to learn about the project in more detail
Science is usually presented as a collection of facts, formulae and experiments that we, as learners, accept and understand. If we think about it, not all of us really know what goes into the making of these concepts. One such scientific field is that of modern physics, wherein concepts about the quantum world are unpredictable and understanding them can be a challenge since they are very different from what we observe in our day to day lives. Visualizing complex concepts through stories and the history that leads to them can help ask questions like “How was this discovered?” or “What led to the formation of this formula?” This process is called scientific inquiry. To define it more clearly, as stated by www.ntsa.org, it consists of “The diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world."
This mobile app, “An Interactive Journey Through Modern Physics” was able to promote learning through scientific inquiry in that students enjoyed visualizing modern physics rather than imagining it though mathematical formulae. Based on the evaluations, the app may not be as successful as a standalone model as it would if used in conjunction with in-class learning materials like textbooks.
In the future, it would be interesting to explore the use of this app in classrooms and evaluating the impact it may have on in-class learning.