Physics Fun at Home

By Robin Roger, October 23, 2020
Professor creates labs that can be completed with common household items.

When professors pivoted to remote instruction this fall, faculty in the natural sciences had to figure out how to deliver labs to their students at home.

Colleen Countryman, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, came up with a way to replicate her introductory physics labs with common household items. She even incorporated her dog, Watson.

“I felt that our physics classes have the great advantage of the fact that physics is all around us,” Countryman said. “We’re able to leverage that for our own benefit by using some really basic pieces of equipment from home to build our labs.”

In this video, Countryman demonstrates how her students use physics tools to analyze everyday situations, like throwing a ball to a dog. 

For example, in one experiment — on the coefficient of restitution of a ball — the class had to determine how bouncy a ball was by looking at potential and kinetic energy using tools that they already had on hand:  a measuring tape, a ball and a phone.

“Before coming to IC, I developed an app called MyTech to collect data on the motion of the phone,” she said. “Your phone knows if you’re holding it straight up or holding it sideways by looking at its relationship to gravity. Your phone’s camera, accelerometer, gyroscope and other internal sensors can all capture data, so we’re able to get very high-quality labs at home.”

“Professor Countryman is doing a great job making it interactive and easy for us to understand. She also makes it very accessible for us.”

Shaunte Gregoire '23, a physical therapy major

For a lesson on two-dimensional kinematics and projectile motion, Countryman demonstrated the trajectory of objects in free-fall by throwing a ball to her dog in the backyard. She took a video of herself throwing a ball to her dog, and asked students to figure out when it would land, and where it would land, using free tracking software. Later this semester, Countryman will have her students perform a lab that explores the forces of objects on inclined planes – which can be created with a simple stack of books.

“I think I’ve been successful changing the students’ minds about the reputation of physics,” she says. “It tends to get a bad rep. Many students have reached out to me to say thank you for making physics fun.”

student doing an experiment

Shaunte Gregoire ‘23 participates in a lab in her kitchen.

Many of the students in Countryman’s class are required to take the course for their majors, like Shaunte Gregoire ‘23, a sophomore physical therapy major who lives in Rodman, New York. Gregoire took a physics class in high school, but said she enjoys this class more.

“It’s hard to put the fun in physics because there’s a lot of math, and not everyone likes math,” she said. “Professor Countryman is doing a great job making it interactive and easy for us to understand. She also makes it very accessible for us.”

Gregoire also said that Countryman designed the course to cater to students’ different learning preferences.

Alonso Gonzalez Reynaud ‘23, a sophomore physical therapy major from Highland Mills, New York, said he misses working with a lab partner in person, so he really enjoys the group work done in breakout sessions on Zoom in Professor Countryman’s class.

“It breaks the ice,” said Gonzalez. “I really like that she gives us the videos to watch on our own time and then group work to discuss the concepts together.”

Gonzalez said he would definitely recommend Countryman’s class to other students.

“It’s always nice to see a professor enjoying what they teach,” he said. “That’s a good thing for students to see — professors loving what they do.”

Countryman said she plans to take advantage of these activities moving forward, and even building on them. 

"There’s something about the ability to see physics in your own life; it’s very tactile in that way," she said.