Computational Modeling in Introductory Physics

RLM 4.102
Physics Department Colloquium - Ruth Chabay
Professor Emerita, North Carolina State University
Computational Modeling in Introductory Physics
Computational models are increasingly at the center of public discourse on topics ranging from investment
strategies to climate change. How can we help our students understand the basic structure, strengths, and
limitations of such models? Computational models in introductory physics are not complex mathematically,
and can produce rich and surprising behavior in simple model systems. Integrating simple computational
modeling into the university-level introductory physics course can help students gain a deeper understanding
of the functioning of fundamental physics principles, as well as allowing them to explore the effect of parameters
such as step size which are important in many classes of computational models. Appropriate tools allow even
novice programmers to concentrate on the physics and mathematics of models rather than on the complexities
of coding. One example of such a tool is VPython (, which produces dynamic 3D animations
of objects and their motion without requiring any graphics or interface coding. I will show examples of
computational activities which we have integrated into the introductory calculus-based physics course taken
by science and engineering students, and will discuss ongoing research directed at improving these activities.