PICUP Community

PICUP Member Spotlight

Nick Nelson
How/what inspired you to get into teaching computation?
I have always been fascinated by computers. In high school I took every programming class my school offered by the end of my sophomore year, so my junior and senior years I took more programming classes as independent study. In college I had the privileged to work with Dr. David Neilsen on numerical simulations of binary neutron star collisions, and from then on I was hooked. Computational astrophysics was for me. Since then I have studied stellar interiors and modeled shock-driven turbulent mixing using some the largest supercomputers on the planet.

Why did you get involved with PICUP?
I have long felt that computational techniques have been under-taught in to physics majors. It's common to have experimental lab courses that go along with many physics courses, however computational techniques are often taught in a haphazard way, or maybe all crammed into one "Computational Physics" course. In the same way that we teach experimental skills throughout the undergraduate physics curriculum, I feel the same sort of broad integration of computational skills across the curriculum will be far more useful to our students. On top of that, programming is consistently rated as one of the most in-demand skills by recent physics graduates.

What benefit has your involvement with PICUP had to you, your teaching, and/or your students?
PICUP's immediate benefit to me and my students has been in the form of easy to use exercise sets which I can quickly adapt to use in my courses. On several occasions I have been able to take an exercise set off the website, fiddle with it for a few minutes, and use it in class. More broadly and maybe more importantly, PICUP provides a community of like-minded physicists who are all seeking to improve their teaching of physics with computation. That community support system is invaluable.

Tell us a bit about how you use computation in (or outside of) your classroom.
I've used computation in a lot of ways, but let me highlight a couple. In the classroom, I teach one of those Computational Physics courses. I also integrate computational methods into my lower-division intro class labs and my upper-division classical mechanics course where my students get to solve a lot of nonlinear differential equation numerically.

Outside of the classroom, I once spent the better part of a vacation helping some family design a zipline by modeling the stresses we might expect to have one it. This entailed myself, my brother, and a couple uncles sitting around for hours with laptops trying various ways to model a person moving down a zipline. Last summer I actually got to ride the zipline I helped model and it was a blast.

What is your favorite thing about teaching computation?
Being able to move beyond the typical simplifications that physicists use in order to make problems solve-able. There's something very satisfying to adding air resistance and friction and rotation and all the messy details of reality to a problem, and then throwing it in a computer and getting an answer that matches actual data.

Spotlight Archive


PICUP Virtual Meetings

Early December PICUP Community Meeting (online via zoom.us)

December 4, 2018 @ 9:00pm ET

In this meeting, Larry Englehardt and Kelly Roos will discuss the editorial and review process for materials submitted to the PICUP collection. Join the Strutting Rooster and Lawrence of Florence for what should be a fun and educational meeting.

Most Recent Meeting

Unique and Interesting Undergraduate-accessible Computational Problems - Tuesday, October 30, 2018

One advantage of using computational/numerical methods is that problems that would otherwise be too difficult to solve (analytically) are now within reach for undergraduate students.  Given this broader array of problems that can potentially be solved -- what are some of the EXCITING problems that students would actually find INTERESTING to solve...without being too difficult for undergraduate students?

Meeting Archive


For online community interaction, PICUP uses the team communication environment at slack.com.  The slack channels range from bulletin board-type announcements of events and activities of PICUP interest to in-depth discussions on how to integrate computational activities into introductory and advanced undergraduate physics courses.

Hit the SLACK logo below to request an invitation to join the PICUP TEAM at SLACK

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