Physics Conceptual Understanding in a Computational Science Course

Students face many difficulties dealing with physics principles and concepts during physics problem solving. For example, they lack the understanding of the components of formulas, as well as of the physical relationships between the two sides of a formula. To overcome these difficulties some educators have suggested integrating simulations design into physics learning. They claim that the programming process necessarily fosters understanding of the physics underlying the simulations. We investigated physics learning in a high-school course on computational science. The course focused on the development of computational models of physics phenomena and programming corresponding simulations. The study described in this paper deals with the development of students' conceptual physics knowledge throughout the course. Employing a qualitative approach, we used concept maps to evaluate students' physics conceptual knowledge at the beginning and the end of the model development process, and at different stages in between. We found that the students gained physics knowledge that has been reported to be difficult for high-school and even undergraduate students. We use two case studies to demonstrate our method of analysis and its outcomes. We do that by presenting a detailed analysis of two projects in which computational models and simulations of physics phenomena were developed.