UniServe€Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996


'Complete' First Year Physics Software Packages

Mick Pope is the Educational Technologist for the Physical Sciences at UniServe*Science

The common goal

First year enrolments have increased with no increase in funding (even threats of cuts!) Evidence in physics education research suggests that traditional teaching methods may not be effective [see Wilson 1994 for references]. The CUPLE (Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment) and SToMP (Software Teaching of Modular Physics) packages are designed to transform the traditional methods by offering a `complete' first year course, either supplementing or supplanting traditional methods, and possibly saving money in the long term (Wilson 1994). Here, I compare and contrast the two packages.


Both packages are hyperlinked, multimedia environments. CUPLE is designed to replace the lecture/lab/tutorial environment with a `Studio class' (Wilson 1994). SToMP is designed to replace some lectures with private study, accompanied by introductory lectures (Bacon 1994). With both packages, the lecturer is not replaced, but moves "from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side". Both packages have text editors, spreadsheets, graph plotters, digital video, simulations, etc. CUPLE can access tools such as videodisc players and motion detectors. SToMP is a hyperlinked textbook which leads students through the material, accompanied by questions embedded in the text and at the end of each unit. At the time of writing CUPLE (v 2.0) covers mechanics, gravitation, optics, waves, astronomy, modern physics (powers of ten and `Physics Today'), and electricity and magnetism, with thermodynamics being developed. SToMP (v 3.04) covers measurement uncertainty, and waves and vibrations, with optics and thermodynamics sections being developed. SToMP being the newer project lags behind in terms of content.

The CUPLE simple harmonic motion lab.

A comparison

To compare these packages let us consider simple harmonic motion. SToMP considers this in five units, with text and simulations (mass and spring, simple pendulum and LC circuit). CUPLE has supporting text, simulations and lab materials (videodisc data of a pendulum and a motion detector based experiment of the mass/spring system). Both clearly state the necessary pre-requisites and learning goals. SToMP introduces the student to the basic terminology, and then guides them through a simulation of the simple pendulum, so that they `discover' the correct relationship. There is no particular encouragement for students to use the tools provided (spreadsheet, plotting tools, etc.). CUPLE introduces the material with the same general discussion and a video of a spring. It introduces the mathematics first with accompanying questions. These questions prompt the student to use the calculator and plotting tools (which are hyperlinked to the page on screen). The relation between uniform circular motion and simple harmonic motion is shown mathematically and with a simulation. This introduces the concept of phase space and damping with only a brief description. SToMP shows the relation of uniform circular motion to simple harmonic motion mathematically and with many illustrations, including an effective animation showing uniform circular motion viewed at different viewing angles.

A simple interactive activity from SToMP.

With both packages, the student is encouraged to interact with the systems under consideration, and divine the underlying relationships and the general principles of simple harmonic motion.. CUPLE has the advantage of being able to relate the `real world' to the theory, whereas SToMP only uses simulations. Students are more likely to be able to relate data and graphs to the experiment because of the shorter time between performing an experiment and plotting the results. CUPLE also makes the tools more obvious to the student and shows them how to use them. The depth of material covered in SToMP is much greater than CUPLE and on the whole makes better use of the simulations. Sections of CUPLE (as with SToMP) are screenfuls of equations, which are tedious to read on screen, but SToMP has better support in terms of animations and pictures. SToMP crashed on occasion, but performs much better than earlier versions. CUPLE version 2.0 has eliminated problems with digital video that were in version 1.0.


Both packages could be useful in teaching first year physics. Both call for a rethink of the way physics is taught at first year level. Proper use of CUPLE requires a complete re-fitting of the physics teaching environments, though no doubt it could be used well as a lecture demonstration or in a conventional lab. Used in Studio mode, it brings together all aspects of traditional teaching. SToMP could be used for revision or as a remedial tool, but if a good computer lab exists, it should be used to replace some lectures, QUT's experience with this is quite successful. This still leaves the problem of laboratories unsolved. Only time will tell how effective these packages can be, when more units are available and more institutions take the plunge.

Mick Pope

Bacon, R.A., "The Teaching and Learning (TLT) Programme", Computers in Physics Education, 2, 5 (1994)
Wilson, J.M., "The CUPLE Physics Studio", The Physics Teacher, 32, 518 (1994)

CUPLE home page
http://www.physics.umd.edu/rgroups/ripe/ cuple/cuple.html

SToMP home page
http://www.ph.surrey.ac.uk/cti/stomp/ index.html