PICUP: The Partnership for the Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics

By Danny Caballero, Larry Engelhardt, Robert Hilborn, Marié Lopez del Puerto, Kelly Roos

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PICUP conducts workshops that offer hands-on experience with computation in physics and practical ways to integrate computation in physics courses

Computation is how modern physics work is done. Many of the most recent noteworthy discoveries in physics [1,2,3] have involved extensive use of computation. Whether it be data reduction, data analysis and modeling, or simulation, the importance of computation in modern science cannot be overstated. In fact, leading voices in physics education have advocated for computation to be included in the experience of all current and prospective physics majors [4].

When we look nationally, we do find more and more physics faculty are integrating computation into their courses [5], but that those are faculty for whom computation is part of their research [6]. As we consider our roles as physics educators, we must reflect on how to teach the practice of physics in a way that represents the discipline authentically. We should afford our students the opportunity to engage with computation throughout the physics curriculum both to better support our students to enter an increasingly data-rich and model-driven world, and to better represent the discipline of physics in light of where it is and not where it was.

In considering such changes to the physics curriculum, we must acknowledge that there are significant challenges [7]. Faculty have a wide variety of responsibilities that put pressure on them. Some faculty might not feel they have the time or energy to make the necessary changes. Others might not feel expert enough to teach computation to their students. As computation is relatively absent from most courses and textbooks, there’s the additional challenge of teaching students something new without much pedagogical support. Faculty might have questions like: what should my students learn; what if I get push back; or what if I fail? The typical reward structure for many faculty doesn’t value innovative teaching, which might lead to additional questions: why should I do this; what should I be spending my time on; what if my department doesn’t care about this?


CMS data

Particle physics efforts, like the hunt for the Higgs boson at the ATLAS (top) and CMS (bottom) experiments at CERN wouldn't be possible without a computational component.

While these are common challenges, they are not insurmountable. In fact, the Partnership for the Integration of Computation into Undergraduate Physics (PICUP) has been working to support faculty who are interested in, or even just curious about, integrating computation into their courses. PICUP’s mission is to support the broader use of computation across the physics curriculum. We are faculty from across the United States that aim to lower the barriers for teaching computation and to provide support to those faculty and departments interested in adopting computation into their courses.

PICUP runs a variety of workshops and provides community support efforts. At national APS and American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) meetings, we conduct demonstration workshops that offer a short introduction to PICUP, hands-on experience with computation, and practical ways to integrate computation into a course using spreadsheets and Python. We also offer more immersive regional and departmental workshops that are tailored to the needs and interests of the faculty attending. These can include longer hands-on experiences as well as longer conversations about practical issues surrounding teaching computation and departmental change.

Our most immersive experience is a week-long summer workshop where faculty from across the US work collaboratively to develop plans and activities for integrating computation into their individual courses and/or the broader curriculum at their home institutions.

In addition to these various face-to-face workshops, PICUP provides a variety of virtual support and community development mechanisms. The PICUP community uses Slack—a web platform suited for team communication—for regular discussions. Community members can ask and answer questions, share materials, and generally support each other’s efforts to integrate computation at their local institutions. We also host monthly online meetings where community members can discuss a variety of issues, from how to support students with little or no experience with computation to advocating for these changes with institutional administrators.

These workshops and the associated virtual interactions are aimed at helping faculty find the energy and space to work towards integrating computation while they develop greater expertise with teaching computation. We do this by discussing successes and failures while iteratively improving upon our efforts. Over the last several years, PICUP has worked to develop a community around computational integration so no faculty member is alone in the process.

In addition to support from PICUP personnel, our website (gopicup.org) also contains many ready-to-use exercises so that faculty can try computational activities that have already been used by others, perhaps, in similar circumstances. Materials on the PICUP website come in two flavors: Exercise Sets and Faculty Commons activities.

Exercise Sets are substantial activities, which have a number of exercises and problems for students to work through. Exercise Sets include learning goals, so faculty know what the developer intended for their students to learn; instructor guides, so faculty can see precisely how the developer uses them in their course; a description of the relevant theory, so faculty can investigate the underlying physics and algorithms used in the exercises; as well as code for students to work from and solutions for faculty. Each Exercise Set is peer-reviewed to ensure all these supporting materials are present and are understandable and useful to others, as well as to provide an incentive to faculty who might receive credit for producing this kind of scholarly work.

Individual Exercise Sets often come in a variety of common implementations such as Python, Matlab, Mathematica, and spreadsheets, so that a faculty member might choose the implementation with which they are most comfortable. Most importantly, the materials in the Exercise Sets repository are easily adaptable to individual faculty interests and pedagogical preferences.

Faculty Commons activities are smaller in scale and can often be considered a single problem for students to work. The Faculty Commons is not peer-reviewed and is intended to be a place where faculty can quickly and easily upload materials for sharing and receiving community feedback. All materials posted to the PICUP website are Creative Commons 4.0 licensed and faculty can alter and reuse them as they see fit for non-commercial purposes.

The physics education community needs to increase the use of computation in the physics curriculum. Computation is a central tool of modern science. It has the potential to help students develop new and important insights into physical systems. It is needed by our students in their future work and for them to engage in an increasingly data-rich and model-driven society. PICUP is an organization that aims to support this work. We invite faculty to reach out and participate in this effort.

Danny Caballero is the Lappan-Phillips Associate Professor of Physics Education in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University and an Associate Professor in the Center for Computing in Science Education at the University of Oslo. Larry Engelhardt is a Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics and Engineering at Francis Marion University. Robert Hilborn is the Associate Executive Officer for the American Association of Physics Teachers. Marie Lopez del Puerto is an Associate Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics at the University of St. Thomas. Kelly Roos is a Professor in the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University.


1. ATLAS Collaboration. Observation of a new particle in the search for the Standard Model Higgs boson with the ATLAS detector at the LHC, Physics Letters B, Volume 716, Issue 1 (2012).

2. CMS Collaboration. Observation of a new boson at a mass of 125 GeV with the CMS experiment at the LHC. Physics Letters B, Volume 716, Issue 1, (2012).

3. LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration. GW170817: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Neutron Star Inspiral. Physical Review Letters, Volume 119, Issue 16, (2017).

4. Behringer, Ernest. AAPT Recommendations for Computational Physics in Undergraduate Physics Curricula. Bulletin of the American Physical Society 62 (2017).

5. Caballero, Marcos D., and Laura Merner. Prevalence and nature of computational instruction in undergraduate physics programs across the United States. Physical Review Physics Education Research 14.2 (2018): 020129.

6. Young, Nicholas T, Allen, Grant, Aiken, John M., Henderson, Rachel, and Caballero, Marcos D. Identifying features predictive of faculty integrating computation into physics courses. Physical Review Physics Education Research (2019, accepted)

7. Leary, Ashleigh, Irving, Paul W., and Caballero, Marcos D. The difficulties associated with integrating computation into undergraduate physics. Proceedings of the Physics Education Research Conference (2018).

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

March 2019 (Volume 28, Number 3)

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