Tag Archives: capstone

Physics Capstones

This year’s AP Physics B capstones were as great as last year’s. Click there to read more about how I structure capstones.

  • Joe’s GravitON – A Python based N-Body Gravity Simulator. Cleanly implemented and well documented VPython implementation of the n-body problem. Can’t wait until Joe offloads process to the GPU!
  • Danny’s Resistance Bands vs Free Weights. A well-designed experiment to model resistance bands.
  • Andrew’s Amateur Kitchen Rocketry. Very creative. Have you ever considered building an olive-oil-powered rocket?
  • Helen’s [Springboard Diving](Amateur Kitchen Rocketry). Great video analysis and fantastic video interviews of coaches and divers.
  • Matt’s Pony Physics: Very creative and thorough exploration of the physics of My Little Pony.
  • Andrew’s Rifle Toss: wonderful application of more advanced physics to determine the energy needed for an 8-rotation rifle toss. (Web page struggles to display the equations; refer to PDF at the bottom.)
  • Nathan’s Physics of Intonation: answers the question “how important is it to play in tune?” Includes a Python script that calculates superposition and a great Minute Physics-style video.
  • Nathan’s Putt Simulator: Models the motion of a golf ball on a generated surface. Incredible application of calculus and computational modeling. (Requires Python, VPython, and Matplotlib.)
  • Michael’s Tunnel to the Center of the Earth: Wonderful Minute Physics-style video supported by Excel-based computational models. Cites Rhett Allain’s How Long Would It Take to Fall through the Earth, solves Rhett’s homework, and then assigns his own.

Based on feedback from students, I’m going to make a one change for next year. Several students actively peer reviewed each other’s capstones. This was fantastic and improved the quality. I wanted to make this a required activity next year.

I think this year’s class benefited from seeing examples from last year’s class. Now that I have a diverse collection of excellent capstones to share, students have an easier time understanding what a capstone is and how to present it in an engaging manner.

AP Physics B Reflections and Plans for Next Year

I’ve been collecting my thoughts on this past year throughout the summer. Since I’m about to start a new school year, now is a good time to review these reflections and share my thoughts and plans for the upcoming year.

This past year was the first year that we officially offered AP Physics B. In previous years, I’ve taught a one-semester Advanced Physics course which covered those topics that are part of the AP Physics B curriculum that were not covered in Honors Physics. So, while a full-year class was new, the content was familiar. Another significant difference between the old Advanced Physics course and the AP Physics B course was the pace and the prior background of the students. Advanced Physics moved at a lightening pace with no review of topics previously covered in Honors Physics. The AP Physics B course, covers all topics that are part of the curriculum, even those covered in previous physics classes. This allows students that have previously taken either General Physics or Honors Physics to be successful in the class. I was pleased that about a third of the students enrolled in AP Physics B had taken General Physics the previous year.

I tried several new ideas in AP Physics B. Based on student feedback, the most successful activity was peer instruction. I specifically followed the techniques in the article Combining Peer Discussion with Instructor Explanation Increases Student Learning from In-Class Concept Questions to maximize the effectiveness. All questions selected were conceptual. I found that conceptual questions lead to more lively discussions among students and, historically, my students have struggled more with conceptual questions than quantitative problem solving questions. The questions were a combination of Paul Hewitt’s Next-Time Questions and clicker question banks from University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University. I started using clickers from Turning Technologies, but transitioned to the Nearpod app on iPads. Students preferred the Nearpod app since they could read the questions off their screen rather than off the projected screen. I was very pleased with the level of student engagement, discussion, and debate during these peer instruction activities. I will continue peer instruction next year and we are expanding its use to our revamped Honors Physics class this upcoming year as well.

While students shared that peer instruction was the most effective class activity, their favorite activity was the capstone. I previously shared the capstone projects. We will do capstones at the end of the fall semester again this coming year. In addition, we will be doing capstones at the end of the spring semester in the revamped Honors Physics class.

Another significant change was providing one or two quizzes for each unit. Feedback from students in Honors Physics and insights by other physics teachers to a previous post, helped me to realize students needed additional formative assessments in order to accurate measure their understanding of the current unit. These quizzes were scored by the students in class (not for a grade), which provided insight into how AP problems were scored, and copies of solutions were immediately distributed. Often, I would collect the scored exams to flip through them and note which students were struggling and which concepts needed additional class time. I believe these quizzes worked well since they provided students with a clear and immediate feedback as to whether their level of understanding was where it should be well before the unit exam. As a result, fewer students needed to take advantage of reassessment opportunities after unit exams in AP Physics B than in Honors Physics. These formative quizzes are another activity that we will be incorporating in the revamped Honors Physics class this upcoming year.

The fourth new activity I introduced in AP Physics B was computational modeling. For most of units that focused on mechanics, we explored and extended computational models. We had mixed success with computational modeling. Several students struggled to come up the learning curve with the limited amount of class time that we dedicated. The most successful activity was using VPython to model projectile motion for an early lab. This activity was successful because of the additional time provided and the clear utility of using the computational model to solve a problem not easily solved in other ways. Despite the mixed success, I’m going to continue exposing my AP Physics B students to computational modeling. I may be a bit more selected in which units we explore the models and perhaps spend more time on those specific models.

Looking ahead to the upcoming year, I’m going to change very little. Overall, I’m very pleased with how last year went. In addition, we are making major changes to Honors Physics (upcoming post) and I’ve made a lot of changes to AP Computer Science. Next summer, I’ll restructure AP Physics B into the new AP Physics 2 class; so, I’ll wait until then to make any major changes.


My AP Physics B class developed capstones as their final rather than a traditional exam. I give them tons of tests to help them prepare for the AP exam; so, I didn’t want to give them a traditional summative final for the fall semester. I wanted them to synthesize multiple concepts, have a choice in the topic they pursue, and present it in an engaging and creative manner.

I had remembered reading about John Burk’s capstones and modeled mine after his. While I have done similar end-of-semester projects before, these were by far the most successful. Reflecting on the capstones, I think a couple of factors helped my students be so successful.

The first is that I provided several exemplars as sources of inspiration. I stressed that I didn’t want a traditional lab report or a PowerPoint presentation. I wanted something that other students would want to read or watch. I pointed students to the following YouTube channels and blogs:

Based on our current unit, I frequently share links to these folks; so, most students were familiar with their style. Since I wanted students to spend the final exam period engaged in each other’s capstones and I would be spending my winter break scoring these capstones, I wanted them to be as interesting as possible.

The second factor that contributed to my students’ success is the requirement that students submit an initial idea for their capstone and then are provided considerable time in class for work and feedback from me. I spent an entire two days moving from student to student and sharing feedback on their capstone. Students had two additional days to work in class, solicit additional feedback, and use lab equipment. This wasn’t enough feedback for every student. A few really needed another round of review and feedback as their capstones missed the mark. While they could have solicited this additional input on their own, their final capstone would have been better if I could have shared another round of feedback.

The third factor that contributed to success is that I provided access to a wide range of technology, but I didn’t mandate that students use any particular technology. This is how educational technology should be integrated into the classroom, it is a tool to enhance learning where appropriate and not a means to an end unto itself. Students chose to use a high-speed video camera, Tracker, Logger Pro, iPads, iPad document camera stand, Educreations app, Scribd, video screen capture, VPython, LabPro and sensors, Vimeo video hosting for embedding, and Canvas ePortfolios.

There were so many fantastic capstones. I selected several to share that represent the variety of engaging presentations:

Thanks to John Burk for planting the capstone seed in my mind and Derek, Henry, Rhett, and Randall for providing amazing and engaging exemplars for my students to model!

In case you’re interested, here is the rubric. It isn’t perfect, but it worked okay:

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