PICUP Community

PICUP Member Spotlight

Walter Freeman
* What inspired me to get into teaching computation?

As a graduate student, I was given the TA assignment for the University of Arizona's upper division computational physics course. This was great fun for me, since as a student I have often written my own simulations to better understand physical systems that the class was studying analytically. After a few years of this, a hiring freeze forced the department to have a
graduate student teach a course; they asked me to teach the lower-division computational physics course. When I asked what curriculum they wanted, they said "We thought you'd figure that out!" So I wrote my own computational physics course, and was fortunate to have a crop of absolutely amazing and inspiring students who achieved far more in a semester than I thought possible.

* Why did I get involved with PICUP?

I went to a PICUP mini-workshop at an AAPT conference, and was very impressed by the flexibility and lack of prescriptivism in the group's approach to education research and reform; rather than saying "Here is a canned way to do things that we want you to adopt", PICUP exists to support instructors and provide a community and a repository of experience that anyone can make use of. It's not a group about selling this or that tool; it's a community of people who've realized that there is real physical wisdom in the results of numerical calculations and that students can further their physical understanding
by studying computer simulations.

* What benefit has my involvement with PICUP had?

I've learned a great many tools and teaching practices that I've made use of in one way or another in the classroom, but the most fulfilling aspect of my involvement in PICUP is the community. The PICUP core members are great folks, and I've had a number of extremely enlightening conversations with them about teaching physics.

* My favorite thing about teaching computation

Computational physics teaching is sometimes sold as necessary for students' professional development -- "hey, the workplace expects them to know how to code!" But it's far more than that; studying physics through a computational lens provides new and deep insights that are not readily accessible to analytical mathematics. Computation allows students to learn the standard physics curriculum in a deeper way. Midway through the semester of my computational physics course, when the students simulate Keplerian orbits, there's a revelation of power that each of them experiences -- the first time they put GMm/r^2=ma into a computer and realize that they have the power to study any possible motion of (classically) gravitating objects, just like that, right in front of them, and in doing so gain a deeper understanding of Newtonian gravitation than they could with pen and paper alone. But computational physics can go beyond that: it also offers them the ability to let them study things that would otherwise be inaccessible (classical perturbation theory! van der Waals equation of state! phase transitions! nonlinear acoustics!), and in doing so explore far more of the richness of physics than they otherwise would.

Spotlight Archive


PICUP Virtual Meetings

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?

Most Recent Meeting

February 2018 Virtual Meeting - February 27th, 2018 - 8pm ET

Todd Zimmerman will share some of his work to integrate computation in advanced lab and lead a discussion around using computation in labs.

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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