Physics courses inspired by “good games” help draw high schoolers to STEM careers


Coding with Physics workshops train teachers to incorporate storytelling, supportive teamwork, productive failure and other video game techniques to engage teens in science.

Watch a group of teens immersed in a popular video game such as “Among Us” and you will see a textbook definition of successful engagement. Well-designed games — ones with clearly stated goals, an emphasis on storytelling, an allowance for “productive failure,” and an emphasis on supportive teamwork and inclusiveness — can point the way to a better classroom environment, too, says University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Lauren Rast, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics.

Rast is a UAB pioneer in a mode of instruction called gameful learning. Faculty in the Department of Physics already have applied gameful learning in their increasingly popular online courses. And in a series of workshops for high school physics teachers inspired by her own work as a computational physicist, Rast has helped teachers share the benefits of gameful learning with teens around Alabama. Her Coding with Physics courses also promote self-efficacy and affinity for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine in a way that particularly resonates with a diverse student population, she says.

“We have so many talented students in our state who are interested in STEMM careers,” Rast said. “To develop that talent, we need to offer high-quality physics instruction in a way that promotes self-efficacy in STEMM and empowers a more diverse student population.”

Strong foundation for successful careers

Rast leads the Distance-Accessible Physics Education Project in the Department of Physics. She was certified in gameful learning a few years ago and first incorporated the philosophy into her distance-accessible Physics 201 course in 2016. The department has experienced strong enrollment growth in its online offerings during the past five years — the total number of students enrolled reached 2,803 in 2020, compared with 243 in 2015. Rast’s Physics 201 online course had 29 students when first offered in fall 2016 and 183 students by spring 2019. Meanwhile, DWF rates — the percentage of initially enrolled students who later dropped or withdrew from the course or received a failing grade — fell from more than 22 percent to roughly 7.5 percent.

In 2020, nearly all physics courses, along with the rest of the university’s offerings, transitioned to remote or hybrid status. “We found these strategies useful in maintaining student engagement in other courses during COVID-19,” Rast said.

The strategies do not just work with college students, as Rast has demonstrated. In 2019, the State of Alabama mandated that all public high schools begin offering at least one computer science course by the 2020-21 school year. The same year, Rast developed her Coding with Physics course and a summer seminar to introduce it to high school physics instructors. The course incorporates computer science training with effective methods of physics instruction to help students persevere and succeed in a discipline that is crucial for success in STEMM courses in college. College-level physics is a requirement for medical school and many other health professions, for instance.

“Studies show that a strong foundation in introductory physics is incredibly important in the path toward a successful career in STEMM,” Rast said. “It allows students to develop an understanding of how the world works through physical principles. However, traditional lecture-based modes of instruction and other widely used methods, such as interactive engagement, have been shown in the literature to have a detrimental impact on engagement and self-efficacy of women and minorities.”

Beneficial at the earliest stages

Rast, a Birmingham native who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in physics at UAB, specializes in computational physics. After receiving her doctorate, she worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, where she created computer models of new materials and designed new materials. She drew from her own training to develop Coding with Physics.

“I strongly believe, based on my own experiences, that the reasoning process used in model development is very beneficial to students at the earliest possible stage of their education,” Rast said. “Computational physics helps students learn coding and data-literacy skills early on, in a way that promotes lifelong learning and allows them to remain nimble as the world and technology change.”

During the inaugural Coding with Physics workshop in summer 2019, teachers learned to use Python programming skills and online tools such as Jupyter Notebooks and Google Classroom to bring physics computational models into their classrooms. That successful pilot led the Alabama State Department of Education to ask the Department of Physics “to develop standards for a new Coding with Physics high school course that would act as science credit but will also meet the new computer science requirement for Alabama high schools,” Rast said.

In summer 2020, Rast and colleagues continued Coding with Physics training despite the pandemic. They adapted the workshop to a remote format and participation doubled, reaching 30 teachers.

“I met with the teachers regularly via Zoom during the month of the workshop and helped debug code during these meetings and also via class message board and email,” Rast said.

She was inspired by the facilitated peer mentorship approach used by faculty in the Department of Physics in how she structured the workshop, Rast noted. “After a while, the teachers — because they are awesome people in this way — began to help and teach one another.

“Teachers who attended the workshops tell me that they continue to use the lessons and materials in their classrooms,” Rast said. “For example, Shayna Turner at Clay-Chalkville High School and Melanie Dimler at Hewitt-Trussville High School have used code and other workshop materials to have their students explore kinematics, forces and other concepts from mechanics in the classroom.”

Reaching further

Now Rast is “focused on scaling up the project to broaden participation and maximize the impact of UAB on our community,” she said. Coding with Physics is part of a broader Department of Physics initiative called Remotely Accessible Interdisciplinary STEMM Education, or RAISE, which is funded in part through a UAB Faculty Development Grant. The Faculty Development Grant program is sponsored by the UAB Faculty Senate.

“RAISE is a novel approach to teaching STEMM via the integration of introductory physics, computational science and gameful learning into an online environment,” Rast said. “The project aims to address four areas that are critical for an equitable STEMM on-ramp.” Those areas are:

student self-efficacy in physics,

STEMM affinity,

computational reasoning and

data literacy.

RAISE, in turn, is a major step toward the Physics department’s goal of creating a STEM Teaching and Learning Incubator focused on “training and providing hands-on computational science resources for high school teachers and students,” Rast said.

The incubator also will study critical research questions, including:

the effect of long-duration professional development for K-12 STEMM teachers on regional STEMM teaching effectiveness,

the impact of constant implementation support and pooled STEM research resources on student learning of science and engineering practices, and

the benefits to institutions of higher education of implementing such a “business incubator” model for regional STEMM teacher professional development.

“RAISE is part of the department’s efforts for workforce development and lifelong learning in Birmingham and Alabama more broadly, with an emphasis on digital literacy and advanced materials,” said Ilias Perakis, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “The incubator is one of the elements of this overall effort.”

“We have some really incredible and dedicated teachers in the state of Alabama who need our support,” Rast said.


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Brianna Hoge
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