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ScienceMan REVIEW - Physics 101 SE

Summary

As a physics teacher, I have often spent many hours preparing, adjusting, and photocopying "formula sheets". Often text books do a poor job of relating formulas for students. And when they attempt to print them as a reference - what do they do? They spread the formulas out in a dog's breakfast of scattered pages hopelessly buried in the bak of the book. No, this just won't do. There has got to be a better solution!

Well, thankfully someone has the perfect solution! Praeter Software has produced a wonderful software solution by the name of Physics 101 SE, and it's a godsend to physics students and teachers. Read on to find out why.

Rating:

Pros:

  • Very affordable
  • Easy-to-use, no errors
  • EXPLAINS physics solutions!
  • Covers a wide variety of physics phenomena
  • Includes built-in simulators for important concepts

Cons

  • Nothing significant (to get that joke, you'll have to read the review!)

Review - Introduction

One of my worst experiences in high school was my senior level physics class. We spent the whole semester doing problems - I swear, I can't remember doing a single laboratory activity. When I hear of students enduring the same nowadays, it makes me cringe. Physics is not about punching buttons on a calculator, physics is all about EXPERIENCING and understanding our physical world. With the advent of affordable probeware that can measure just about any physical phenomena, there's no reason why students can't spend each and every physics class performing experiments.

OK, now that I have that rant off my chest, let's get on to business - reviewing Physics 101 SE. This piece of software fits nicely into how I think a high school physics class should be taught. Formulas are the tools of physics that allow us to solve problems. It's important that student understand how to use them, but I don't think having students do "busy work" in the form of hundreds of repetitive calculations does them any good. What students really need is a powerful formula reference that will allow them to get right to the matter of solving problems, so they'll have more time to for laboratory investigations.

Physics 101 SE is so good, it really should be required for all physics classrooms! The software is a Swiss army knife for physics, providing excellent reference tools, a calculator, and many well-thought out simulators, but where it really excels is helping students with their calculations.

First Impressions - Interface

Note - many images are clickable for a larger view.

Starting up Physics 101 SE presents you with a tabbed interface of different physics concepts - when you click on a tab, you are presented with the formulas relevant to that concept:


Kinematics, dynamics, momentum, sound, thermodynamics... 24 tabs in total, all in all providing every possible physics formula that you'll ever need, all perfectly organized. The tabs are organized in three set equations sets - so it's super quick to get to the formula you need.

Along the left edge of the screen you'll see an icon list of "features", which is essentially a grab bag of very useful tools for your physics studies. For example, you can quickly bring up a periodic table reference, scientific calculator, or a unit converter:


I'll come back to the "features" in the following section on function.

Function - Using Formulas

The heart of Physics 101 SE are the formulas - this program has all of them superbly organized, but how do you use them? Well, it couldn't be simpler. Each formula has fields for all the variables to be inserted, so all you have to do is put the numbers in and click "Calculate". For example, let's say we were trying to calculate the average kinetic energy of Usain Bolt (95 kg) during his record setting 100-m dash (9.58 s).

First, we'd click on the Kinematics tab and use the average velocity formula. Then, we'd click on the Energy tab and use our average velocity result to calculate Usain's kinetic energy:



So we've easily and conveniently determined kinetic energy! Unfortunately in this multi-formula example, we expose a couple of small weaknesses in Physics 101 SE - the only way to bring a result from one formula to another is to highlight the result and then choose "copy" and then "paste" from the file menu. This is a bit inconvenient, it would be better if copy and paste were available with a right mouse-click. Also, notice the final result in the example above is displayed with the improper significant digits. For most people, this will not be a big deal. You can actually control the number of decimal points displayed in the program's preferences, but it would be good if there was also a preference choice for displaying answers in significant digits.

You can use the formulas to calculate ANY variable, simply click the radio button next to the variable you wish to find, then fill in the other values. One of the nicest features is the explanations for the formulas, you can access them by clicking the questions mark - a great feature for confused students!

Function - Using Features

One of the real strengths of Physics 101 Se are the built-in features. I've already mentioned some of the useful tools that are available, but there are also some fantastic simulations built in as well. These simulations would find use by teachers as instructional tools or by students using them experimentally. The excellent simulators include:

  • Free body diagrams (MANY different types!)
  • Oscillations - perfect for pendulum or mass-on-a-spring analysis
  • Projectile motion (includes both ideal and drag)
  • Circuit analysis
  • Orbital paths
  • ...and several more!

Here's an example of a wonderful simulator - the Vector Addition feature:



I found using this tool to be very intuitive. Simply mouse over the grid an the end of the vector follows your mouse pointer - click to set the magnitude and direction, and your mouse movement then moves on to place the next vector. The tables on the left hand part of the window show the x and y components, vector magnitudes, and the results of the vector addition. I think picky physics teachers would prefer to see arrow heads on the end of the vectors, and I also found it a bit annoying that there was no way to stop the mouse from creating new vectors when you have completed your vector diagram. Perhaps this could be remedied by adding a simple "stop drawing" function that's accessible through a right mouse-click.

Final Thoughts

Physics 101 SE has a ridiculous number of fantastic features and functions for the price. It's well-designed and easy to use, and is the perfect replacement for inconvenient formula sheets in the physics classroom. For these reasons, I heartlily recommend Physics 101 SE - this program is a must for the physics classroom and is bound to improve both physics teaching and learning.


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