Arduino in Physics Class

I’ve been teaching AP Physics for a while, and had been looking for a way to introduce some project work that would be fun, while extending the topics we were studying in class.  I also like playing around with programming,  and always thought that the mathematical problem-solving involved was only a short step from the problem-solving in Physics class.

Enter the Arduino board, a cheap and cheerful microprocessor board designed right from the start to let non-engineers make use of computer-control for projects. At around $30 each, they fit a school budget. Programmable in what is basically simplified Java, it’s actually easier to learn than Basic, and kids studying programming in school who know a bit of C or Java pick it up right away. With a breadboard, wire and a few dollars’ worth of electronic parts, you’re on your way to a very cool mashup of art and engineering. Visit the Arduino project website for a detailed look.

My blog entries are a series of lessons using the Arduino to teach physical computing. That’s not computing physics, it’s computer programming directed towards controlling physical objects (i.e. using sensors to make stuff happen), rather than crunching data or producing graphics. It strikes me as a more concrete and satisfying way to teach students computer programming.  I got into the idea after reading Tom Igoe’s excellent book on the subject. He also runs a Physical Computing center at New York University,  which is an interesting site to hunt around.

If you want to try out these lessons, remember that these were done in the context of a high-school Physics class, so I’m assuming you know (or will go learn) a little bit about basic circuits, how to use a breadboard, and the hazards of a short circuit. Of course when you are new to using breadboards, knowing the hazards of  a short circuit does absolutely nothing to reduce the likelihood they’ll happen, but it does allow my students to say “Hey! I made a short-circuit!” instead of  “Hey! My Arduino’s smoking!” with a sense of pride. To be fair, we’ve only fried one Arduino in just over a year – but we’ve fried lots of LED’s, so keep extras!

The lessons require an Arduino board, a breadboard, three 220-ohm and 10K-ohm resistors,  a 10K potentiometer, three LED’s, a pushbutton switch, a piezo speaker, a 5V DC-controlled relay, a DC motor, and some hookup or jumper wire (24 guage).  You probably need to solder hookup wire onto the speaker and motor, so a wire stripper, needle-nose pliers, a soldering iron and some solder are good to have.  If you just want to get started fast,  Adafruit Industries and Sparkfun have nice Arduino project kits that don’t cost much more than the parts and are pretty much ready to go.

Finally, download and install the Arduino software, for your PC, Mac or Linux machine, and get started!


4 responses to “Arduino in Physics Class

  1. Pingback: Best Arduino On-line Curricula #syllabus #curricula #arduino #classes #resources | A Listly List

  2. Hi! I was checking about physics and science projects for arduino and came up with your page. I’m very happy to tell you that I’ve just made available an open source software for data extraction and basic analysis using Arduino, java and JavaFX. This ṕroject dates a long time ago (maybe a year or two) and we were hoping to get the time to make it available soon but we haven’t had the time to make the code “nice and tidy” (we had the project practically stopped for a year). It has MIT license (you can do anything you want with it). If you use it some feedback is very appreciated as we plan on restarting it soon.
    The project’s page is :
    Hope you have fun with it,

  3. Fantastic iniciative.
    Please, check the journal “Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física”.
    The last issue, 2011, is about using Freeduino (an arduino clone) to apply the Arduino in experiments in physics. Although is the paper in portuguese is worth check anyway!!!

  4. Good Job!!

    You are a pioneer and I will bet that you have changed a few career objectives as a spin-off.

    I will be checking out your projects, stealing
    as much as I can. Keep up the good work.

    Fellow teacher,Dave.

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