“Teaching Physics by Designing Games” by Border

  • ©Peter M. Border



    Teaching Physics by Designing Games



    We report on an experimental physics class which taught elementary mechanics by having students design computer games. Students made games with vPython classes and by writing “mods” for UnrealEd. They learned physics by programming agents to move, roll and collide in a physically corrrect manner, which required them to understand the physics behind the motion.

    Animation and physics are natural partners, and physics education benefits immensely from being joined with animation. Thinking in terms of animation makes the physics much clearer, as it focuses attention on the differential equation rather than the integrated solution. Integrating numerically with a computer vastly increases the scope of solvable problems as well, opening up all sorts of effects that were previously ignored. Students are much more motivated to make a game or a movie than to do abstract physics problems, and they will work much harder on creative assignments than traditional ones.

    Simulation is a much more robust and dependable method of problem-solving than traditional exact calculation. Real world problems are solved almost completely by simulation nowadays, unlike freshman physics where everything is done by exact integration. Visualizing results is also much easier with a computer than with pencil and paper. Looking at a graph, or seeing a simulated experiment happen, is much clearer than looking at an algebraic equation. This course uses computer visualizations as much as possible, and keeps the algebraic, pencil-and-paper manipulation to an absolute minimum.


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