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Particle in a Box

Particle in a Box

Quantum Mechanics (QM) is a foundational course for Physics students, but due its abstract nature, people find it difficult to understand. How can we encourage students to learn QM and get them interested in science?

Background

Existing visualizations (and very few existing games) for Quantum Mechanics (QM) are highly technical, too focused on mathematical formulae, and difficult to approach. Many students in undergraduate courses drop out of QM courses due to the vagueness of the subject. To address the above challenges we created and evaluated a virtual environment governed by the laws of QM as a way to engage alternative ways of teaching and learning.

Role: User Experience Research and Narrative Development at the Design and Social Interaction Lab

PublicationGLS 11, Madison WI

LinkParticle in a Box demo

 

Challenges

  • How can the design environment enable students to build on their past experiences and knowledge, while facilitating their ability to break free from it?
  • How can we design an integrated environment that is both scientific and immersive; serious or playful?
  • How can we connect what the students learn in textbooks to this interactive environment?

Building on student's past experiences

Concepts such as energy, position, and momentum differ in classical and quantum mechanics. Students are familiar with the classical world since they experience that everyday. Objects in the quantum world behave unexpectedly. Our broad strategy was to use comparison to demonstrate these differences between the classical and quantum worlds.

Classical Mechanics concept

Quantum Mechanics concept

Integrated Environment

The second key challenge we faced was to design a visual environment that was both scientific and immersive; serious and playful. Our response to this challenge was to create an integrated environment that combined the scientific representations of quantum mechanics concepts with the game environment.

 

Concept of the wave function: A static diagram that represents the connection between the wave function (blue curve) and the electron’s probability distribution (faded blue dots)

Concept of the energy levels: A change in the energy level of the electron adds more peaks and nodes to the wave function (blue curve). This change is represented in two sequential static figures

 

Tutorials

Given the abstract nature of QM concepts and the educational aims of the game, it was important for the game to include simple tutorials that helped players learn how to play the game. The tutorials were 3-4 pages of text presented before the beginning of each level with each page accompanying an interactive image to explain a key concept.

 

Example of a tutorial page

 

 

Storyboards

 We followed an iterative design process for the entire project. Here are some of our initial storyboards for the interactive environment:

 

User Testing and Updates

I led the research efforts when the game was in version 1. The research was guided mainly by the question: To what extent do QM educational games impact student learning and knowledge retention? The approach towards evaluation has also been guided by this research question and includes both qualitative and quantitative methods, with people representative of the target audience. In order to achieve this we approached Professor Dr. Christine Payne of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology and conducted an in-class study with students of her QM course. Here, the findings from that study and its implications are discussed.

Assessment

The study began with a pre test consisting of 14 multi-choice and short-answer questions on classical and quantum physics concepts. The multi-choice questions measured content knowledge and the short-answer questions measured conceptual reasoning. The post-test additionally included 5 questions related to the impact of gameplay. The short-answer questions were qualitatively coded on the dimension of accuracy. 
A 30-minute focus group was then conducted to evaluate positive and negative aspects of the game as well to explore how the game helped the students understand QM concepts. Finally, the study concluded with a participatory design activity for which the students were given printed screenshots of the game including the tutorial slides. Just like the nature of quantum mechanics, it can be difficult to verbally explain all of one’s feedback and therefore this activity allowed the students to highlight their feedback specific to a section of the game using pen, paper and post-its.

Participants & Conditions

The in-class study, conducted outside of regular class hours, consisted of n=5 male undergraduate students. These participants were taking the QM course (CHEM 3412 - Physical Chemistry II) and were familiar with the particle-in-a-box thought experiment.

Results

From the pre-post test analysis we found the content knowledge increased by 20% in the classical and 40% in the quantum physics questions. The gameplay statistics are summarized below, using a bipolar scaling method:

This provides basic validation that the game had no negative impact on content knowledge. 
Some of the feedback from the focus group discussions was that the tutorials felt like reading a book and not part of a game. Transition between the two worlds was difficult to understand and many students were not able to apply the concepts learnt in the tutorial levels, in the gameplay. 
The participatory design activity helped us to recognize errors in the content of some tutorial slides along with visual design improvements.

 

Closing Thoughts

This project began in Fall 2014, when I was a volunteer helping out with storyboarding and visual design enhancements. In the following semester, I took on the UX Researcher role to develop preliminary testing instruments and conduct evaluation studies. Being part of the core team for 3 semesters taught me skills such as user research, project management, organization and documentation which are very important to the design process, but never given as much emphasis. Since this was an ongoing project, we had to hand it off to the next researchers when we graduated, making documentation a very important part of our process.

The game receives frequent updates from the students working on it at any time. You can play the current version of the game and check out the progress here.