Simulations for Physics and Astronomy


This bid is submitted by Bruce Sinclair and Aly Gillies (St Andrews) and Dick Bacon (Surrey), and targets requirements that have been identified by the LTSN PSC Special Interest Group "Simulations in Physics and Astronomy". It is proposed as a highly collaborative project, where financial support can be provided to members of the special interest group to develop teaching materials for use by the UK HE sector.

Computer simulations can form an important part of student learning. A good simulation can allow a student to explore a particular physical process and to test out their understanding. In some situations, simulations can graph or otherwise visualise the results of determining equations in a readily interpreted form (e.g. electric potential near point charges or single slit diffraction patterns). In other situations the only way to solve a set of coupled equations may be numerically through a simulation-like activity (e.g. the operating characteristics of an erbium-doped fibre amplifier). While simulations should not completely replace "real" practical activities, they can provide a route for students to explore concepts rapidly and accurately, and in complete safety.


The materials

There are many good simulations commercially available. For example, the CUPS and Albert suites of programs contain some excellent material and are available at relatively low cost. While both come with some support material, any teacher wishing to use these with a class would have to invest considerable time in devising material to assist their students. At least in the initial stages, use of the simulation will be more profitable if the students are guided in their explorations, and asked to achieve specific goals. Part of this proposal is to support physics HE staff in producing support material to go alongside some of the better available software. We feel that the availability of high-quality UK-linked teaching materials could go a considerable way to enhancing the uptake of these simulations across the UK HE sector. Examples of material of this type are already available via the web site of our special interest group, contributed at no cost by St Andrews.

It is important to note that the proposed materials are designed only to support the use of the simulations, not to provide significant parts of a course. They will therefore be designed to introduce students to a simulation and how to use it, and to provide specific problems or scenarios that the student can use the simulation to solve or investigate. In this form they will be useful additions to a broad range of existing courses. Our expectation is that materials in this form will be widely accepted, while attempts to provide complete sections of courses are less likely to fit with the style chosen at a given institution. As the support material will be provided in Word documents with an invitation to edit, individual sites will be able to make any adjustments to the material that they deem necessary for their particular students and teaching scheme.

There are many topics on which one would like a simulation for use in a lecture or tutorial, or for individual use by students. By no means all of these are currently available. The Simulations Interest Group has started to catalogue useful material on its web site, and provides links to the LTSN resources and database in this area. A growing number of JAVA applets are also becoming available. However, there are still many topics, often quite simple, where a good simulation is not available. Part of this proposal is therefore for members of the group to identify such needs, to prepare suitable high-quality simulations and make them available to the UK HE community. Again, examples of this sort of material are available via the group's website.

A recent innovation in visualising particular processes is the "reality viewer" developed through the TLTP SToMP project. This provides a sequence of photographic views of an experimental situation in which the user can take control. One existing example is of refraction at an air-glass interface, where the student can control the angle of incidence of the beam. Each change in angle uses a new photo of the apparatus and with many such images, a smooth, user-controlled exploration of a virtual (recorded) experimental situaion can be provided. This has an advantage over a conventional simulation of being obviously "real", hence the name. The third part of this proposal is to modify this viewer for stand-alone use in UK HE, and to generate several sets of photographs to allow this to be a useful tool across a number of areas of physics.



The lead proposers have significant experience in the authoring, support, and use of simulations in the teaching of physics, and have contributed to LTSN and CTI events. Members of the special interest group support this application. Hugh Jones at Liverpool John Moores University has offered to contribute his astronomy expertise to the project, and join the proposers in forming the initial editorial team. Staff at sixteen UK HE institutions have already shown interest in taking an active part in authoring material or in subsequent use. Our aim is to develop the materials in the way shown above, and to make these available to the UK HE community on the Group's website. The website and its contents will be publicised in the Centre's material, and will also feature in LTSN workshops and similar events. We are aware of two other proposals in this general area coming to the LTSN panel, and are pleased to see the interest and mutual support that is coming from the physics and astronomy community.

We propose to carry out these tasks through the members of the Group over a one-year period until July 2002. Colleagues across the country with appropriate expertise will work together to provide teaching material to go with 22 existing simulations drawn from CUPS, Albert, PAS and similar packages, and freely available material such as the Physlets resources. For each suitable piece of finished, quality-controlled, teaching support material (such as those already on the Group's site), authors would be paid 100. This material would then be available free of charge to teachers within the UK. A small editorial panel will communicate by email to set priorities, commission work, control quality, and otherwise guide the process. We believe that much more material will be generated in this way than would be the case by continuing to request material from departments for no cost. Should this proposal and those from elsewhere all get funded, we propose setting up an arrangement to avoid duplication and ensure best co-operation towards our joint goals.

The Special Interest Group team will work to set priorities and support the production of relevant simulations, and associated teaching support material. We recognise that different simulations will require significantly different amounts of work and the editorial team will agree sums for each simulation depending on complexity and amount of support material required. We expect these to range between 100 and 300, and at least 15 relevant simulations with support materials will be produced. We realise that we are unlikely to be able to provide market-value compensation for what would be effectively a country-wide licence, but hope nevertheless that a spirit of co-operation, aided with some monetary reward, will enable such work to be carried out.

Members of the group, with the help of the editorial team, will identify topics for the reality viewer. The Surrey site will create these assemblages of photographs, and the viewer and the topics will again be available on the Group's website. Examples of suitable topics include reflection, refraction and diffraction, showing how the view varies with parameters such as beam angle, slit width, etc. It may also be possible to create ‘virtual’ experiments from which measurements can be taken (e.g. electrical measurements, or other steady state phenomena). This will be considered by the group members, and implemented additionally if thought desirable. We estimate 1500 to pay for the time taken to create the picture sets and to adapt the viewer for UK HE.



The co-ordinators of this project will have to oversee this work and mount materials on the Group's website. It is estimated that this will take some 80 hours over the course of the project, and thus 450 for each of their institutions is requested in partial recompense.

Materials produced within this project will remain the intellectual property of their authors (or the author's institution as appropriate). Authors will be required to sign an agreement, however, dealing with the details of the free distribution of the materials to UK academics.

It is important that all the proposed work is well catalogued and easy to assess and access from the Group's web site, which in turn should be available from the LTSN PSC site. Part of the refereeing process in the development will be input to short descriptions of each piece of work and its relevance to different levels of study in the UK HE context. The simulations and the support material should be widely applicable. We propose to gain the views of potential and actual users to feed back into the commissioning and authoring process.


Provisional Budget

Description number cost sub total
Support materials for existing simulations




New simulations




Support materials for new simulations




Reality' scenarios and viewer








Quality control and contingency








Dr Bruce Sinclair & Dr Aly Gillies,
School of Physics and Astronomy,     
University of St Andrews,
Tel: 01334 463118

Dr R Bacon,
Department of Physics,
University of Surrey,
Tel: 01483 259414