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New iPad App Teaches Physics Concepts Using Artifacts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Physics at the Art Museum iPad app

PHILADELPHIA, PA, April 16, 2014

Why did the Liberty Bell crack? What forces are at work as you run up and down the “Rocky Steps”? Why do you fall over when a SEPTA bus stops short?

“I often hear people say, ‘I can’t do physics,’ but what they don’t realize is that they’re using it all the time intuitively,” said Mary Jo Grdina, PhD, an associate clinical professor in Drexel University's School of Education. “In a city like Philadelphia, you can learn about science anywhere – people should not be afraid of it."

It was this perspective on finding science where you least expect it that inspired Grdina to create “Physics at the Art Museum,” an iPad app that teaches users about the physics behind artwork and artifacts in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

For example, through the app, the Calder mobile becomes a lesson on torque and rotational equilibrium and a knight’s sword becomes a lesson on the center of mass.

The app is divided into four sections or modules that connect an artifact in the museum’s collection to a scientific concept. In each module, the users can read or listen to an introduction about the art and the artist.

Then, using interactive animations and video segments, they can explore physics principles associated with each object. Finally, users can review a summary of what they’ve learned.

The art objects and corresponding scientific concepts include:

  • The statue of the Roman goddess Diana, once a weathervane, to demonstrate Newton’s Third Law.
  • Several famous paintings to explain how we see color.
  • The huge “Ghost” mobile by sculptor Alexander Calder to teach rotational equilibrium.
  • Swords from the arms and armor collection to illustrate the importance of the location of the Center of Mass when wielding a weapon.

The “Physics at the Art Museum” mobile iPad app is now available for download, free of charge, from Apple’s App Store. It will also be available through the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s website,

“Using art, sculpture and artifacts rather than the traditional academic classroom setting, ‘Physics at the Art Museum’ aims to enhance science education for youth,” said Grdina.

“The goal is to take STEM concepts out of the classroom and integrate them into a non-traditional setting in order to make science more approachable, relevant and compelling for students and the general public. It is also another way to turn STEM into STEAM, where the ‘A’ is for ‘Art.’ ”

Drexel’s School of Education worked closely with Barbara Bassett, curator of Education, School and Teacher Programs for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Steve Wills, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Wachovia Education Resource Center, to develop the modules.

Under the direction of Grdina and Michel Miller O'Neal, PhD, assistant professor in the special education programs, the app was produced by Drexel’s Learning Technologies Group of the School of Education with the support of a grant from the Subaru of America Foundation. It was tested on teachers and students at West Philadelphia public schools.