"Wingardium Leviosa": Learning Physics Elevated to Another Level

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Brief Abstract

What if Physics is gamified in a Harry Potter-like journey, and students belonging to different houses discover role models and personalized content? Presenters will share best practices for creating an inclusive and engaging environment anchored to relevant experiences for a future career in STEM and interactive opportunities for learning. 


Elyse Ramirez is a Lead Learning Experience Designer in Teaching, Learning & Digital Transformation under the division of Academic Innovation at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Elyse is currently in her 7th year in education with prior experience as a high school computer technology teacher for grades 9th-12th. She is currently enrolled in the Instructional Systems Design and Technology doctoral program at Sam Houston State University. Elyse is dedicated to assisting faculty with designing high-quality and accessible online courses for all learners and providing opportunities to innovate the field of online education.
Claudia Arcolin is the Interim Executive Director for Teaching and Learning Experiences at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is an enthusiast designer and learning architect. For The University of Texas at San Antonio she led the design of the core curriculum courses for the first online bachelor degree in Cyber Security and the first MOOC in Understanding Alzheimer: A Molecular and Genetic Approach. She also led pilot initiatives such as the Defining Moment, an interdisciplinary project that involved 11 instructors, 18 different courses and impacted more than 500 students, and the Innovation Academy targeted to faculty teaching in all modalities. In addition to a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Education Sciences, she holds a doctorate in Cognition and Education Sciences from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy.

Extended Abstract


At the onset of the pandemic, The University of San Antonio identified strategic initiatives to create exemplary models of quality online courses to enhance student engagement and instructor presence. A challenge that emerged while moving courses traditionally offered in a face-to-face modality to online was identifying methods to maintain student engagement and motivation. The Summer 2020 semester offered the opportunity to pilot PHY 3293: Thermal Physics with a few gamified elements, including badges, levels, leaderboard, and points. Students could access the course based on different levels, and each level released extra content to explore the contributions that certain scholars made to the field of thermodynamics. These roles models were identified from different historical moments, countries, and identities. Through accessing this additional content, students could also explore tips to be successful in the online environment. Student feedback was so positive that the pilot was extended to the Fall semester 2020 with the PHY 1943: Physics for Scientists and Engineers I course.  

The Course Design

This introductory course enrolls approximately 120 students most of whom are science or engineering majors. PHY 1943 is the first of a two semester sequence and offers an introduction to mechanics. To ensure student engagement and create an inclusive environment, the design team, composed by the instructor and the Instructional Designers in the Office of Digital Learning, created a course that included gamification components to help strike motivation and engagement (e.g., Barata et al., 2013; Kapp, 2012) with various topics within the course.  

The course is designed following the Higher Education Quality Matters Standards Rubric for high quality online course design. It provides various opportunities for instructor-student interaction (Optional synchronous sessions, Q&A Discussion Forum in each module using Padlet), student-student interaction (Students were organized in groups or “houses” to collaborate and complete learning activities to gain points, Q&A Discussion Forum), and active learning. As part of this course, students practice physics principles and relate them to real world concepts and scenarios with an Open Education Resource textbook created by OpenStax and interactive assignments generated in WebAssign. Interactive video lessons using PlayPosit “bulbs” were included throughout the modules to provide students the opportunity to test their knowledge with interactive pauses and questions and gain interactive points that contributed to their rank in the leaderboard and earn badges in the course. Students earned points through active participation in discussions, optional synchronous practice sessions, completion of additional interactive widgets (created using PhET and available through OpenStax) and completion of surveys.   

Throughout the duration of the course, students had the chance to earn 6 badges that released information about science and engineer scholars in the field as well as career tips based on the number of points received individually. Students can gain points individually and as part of their "house". Earning point as a "house" was intended to foster student-student interaction and encouraging each other to succeed as a "house". Students could use their points strategically as a house to earn an extra attempt on an interactive video, quiz, or the opportunity to re-take an assignment. If students were awarded all 6 badges or over 275 points, they earned the right to a career advising session with the instructor or a member of the student success center. The house with the most points at the end of the semester became the winners of the 7th badge, the House Cup!

Module Outline Sample 

The course was organized by module and structured the same throughout the course. A module example is shown:

  • Module Overview

    • Introduction to the module and provided an overview of the topic(s) discussed and expectations.

  • Learning Objectives

    • Learning outcomes that are specific, measurable, and clearly describe what learners will learn and be able to do by the end of the module and the course. Learning objectives showcase alignment and relationship to one another by using a numbering system for support to achieve the module and course learning objectives. 

  • Module Plan

    • Provided to learners to showcase a "to-do" list of items to complete before moving on to the next module. 

  • Module Discussion Forum (Padlet) 

    • Incorporated into the module for learners to be able to ask questions, respond to other peers in the course, and share ideas about what they learned in the module. 

  • Readings  

    • Web link to OER textbook in OpenStax and provides the learner with a specific Chapter to read and examples to review. 

  • Lecture Notes 

    • Lecture notes are provided to the learner to follow along and add additional information as they view the interactive and non-interactive video lectures. 

  • Interactive and Non-Interactive Video Lectures 

    • Interactive video lectures were included using PlayPosit (an interactive video platform) that hosted a series of questions throughout the lecture to test the students' knowledge and comprehension. Non-Interactive video lectures were also included using Panopto and were instructor-created with no knowledge checks incorporated.  

  • Homework & Conceptual Assignment 

    • Web link to WebAssign where homework and conceptual assignments were administered for the learner(s). Three interactive activities were assigned during the semester using PhET widgets followed by conceptual questions, a self-reflection activity and a survey.

  • Link to Next Module

Student Impact 

At the end of the course, students completed a Likert-scale survey aimed to identifying their perceived usefulness of the gamification elements in fostering student engagement. Although students highlighted some need for improvement, a high percentage of students perceived the gamification elements to keep them engaged with the course. Results from the survey show that 94.6% of the students recognized the point system as the most helpful gamification element, followed by the Padlet discussion boards (82.2%), the badges (70.4%), the leaderboard (68.5%), and the house system (65.8%). It is important to notice that non-gamified elements of the course also contributed to student engagement. For instance, the Video Solutions to homework and test problems were reported to be very or extremely useful to foster engagement by 80% of the students who responded to the survey (n=73). The success of the gamification elements is illustrated in the following student comments: 

“This course was my most interactive course, homework and lecture wise. There is a lot going on with the length of the homework, class meet-up, and extra assignments like interactive videos and discussion boards” (PHY 1943, Fall 2020) 

“Furthermore, the gamification of the course made the course very engaging and motivated us to gain as many points. The course was organized into modules which was very helpful to keep up with.” (Summer 2020, PHY 3293) 

Finally, using Handelsman et al., (2005) Likert-scale survey of course engagement, we assessed student engagement at the middle and end of the course.  This survey was designed to measure engagement in college courses, thus it was appropriate for the gamified course. Survey results show that students sustained their attention during the second half of the semester (M1 = 70.2, M2 =71.28).    

Learning Outcomes  

Participants will learn how to:

  1. Design course materials to create an inclusive environment and boost motivation and engagement providing personalized and relevant content to spark students’ interests and connect to the career field.  

  2. Create a gamified environment in Blackboard and use groups, badges and leaderboard to engage students.   

  3. Plan the steps to gamify the course design, manage a gamified course and use student data to measure the impact on the learning experience.   

Audience Engagement  

Participants will have the possibility to perform a video tour the course and interact in a Padlet forum to ask questions and continue the conversation after the conference.   

Impact on Student Inclusion, Engagement and Success  

The course is designed following the Higher Education Quality Matters Standards Rubric for high quality online course design and are fully accessible following best practices and principles for digital accessibility. The course also offers various elements for Universal Design for Learning. In addition, the course was designed with attention to diversity, equity and inclusion. The "House” system is meant to address equity by providing a mechanism to share benefits among the members of a House. The diversification of content delivery and assessment is also an important element of equity but also inclusion since it aims at providing students opportunities to show what they know in different ways and attending their time constraints. Finally, the badge system was used to introduce contributions from scholars with different cultural and ethnical backgrounds often ignored by textbooks or instructors. 

Future of the Project  

This course has been identified as an exemplary course for STEM discipline at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). UTSA is a Hispanic-thriving university founded in 1969 by the Texas Legislature in order to provide access to quality higher education for South Texans. Presenters will provide background on the Gamify Physics Project, which serves to elevate the voices of UTSA students, 70% of whom are first-generation and over 57% percent identify as Hispanic or Latino.  A central theme of the project is instilling confidence in our students providing role models they can relate to and get inspired to pursue their college journey and a career in STEM. The design methodology and teaching strategy will serve as guidelines for future STEM courses.