Undergraduate students’ challenges with computational modelling in physics


  • Simen A. Sørby Department of Physics, University of Oslo
  • Carl Angell Department of Physics, University of Oslo




In later years, computational perspectives have become essential parts in several of the University of Oslo’s natural science studies. In this paper we discuss some main findings from a qualitative study of the computational perspectives’ impact on the students’ work with their first course in physics– mechanics – and their learning and meaning making of its contents. Discussions of the students’ learning of physics are based on sociocultural theory, which originates in Vygotsky and Bakhtin, and subsequent physics education research. Results imply that the greatest challenge for students when working with computational assignments is to combine knowledge from previously known, but separate contexts. Integrating knowledge of informatics, numerical and analytical mathematics and conceptual understanding of physics appears as a clear challenge for the students. We also observe alack of awareness concerning the limitations of physical modelling. The students need help with identifying the appropriate knowledge system or “tool set”, for the different tasks at hand; they need helpto create a plan for their modelling and to become aware of its limits. In light of this, we propose thatan instructive and dialogic text as basis for the exercises, in which the emphasis is on specification, clarification and elaboration, would be of potential great aid for students who are new to computational modelling.