This goal of this project is provide (eventually) a huge repository of animations and simulations helpful for understanding concepts in physics, mathematics and astronomy. Central to the mission is an ease of use and access. Starting with a long term commitment to a main URL that is short and simple, as opposed to a long string of sub-directories buried under a commercial or educational host. To an overall design intended to mimic a museum or art gallery. Animated content is available on the very top entry level page and large amounts can be browsed quickly just below. The full realization of these goals will take some time, but progress should be steady.
Free vs Commercial
The developer of this site is a college physics professor during the school year and a programmer/software developer in the summer. As a programmer, the developer is sympathetic to the cause of compensation for the creation of intellectual property. There are no plans to provide the source code for the utilities used to generate content here (although the techniques are pretty standard and described at The Methods link) since the same code is also used in projects funded by other clients.
As an educator, the developer is also sympathetic to the desire to have open source, copyright free resources available. Certainly each individual item here has negligible monetary value. An educator working on a lecture for tomorrow, who would like to find a quick animation illustrating the Roche limit in astronomy doesn't want to be nickel and dimed, or even have to order a free CD, or install some viewer. They want to be able to freely grab it to their harddrive and drop it into a PowerPoint. All materials on this site are offered under the Creative Commons License.
At this point the developer has the luxury of being supported in this project through his other employment. Educational materials are, of course, just one area of many (newspapers, TV, the music industry) where the internet has played havoc with old business models and a new equilibrium has yet to be found.
Pedagogy vs Content Volume
Pedagogy is important. Finding the best way to sequence material, build units, compare and contrast lessons. Understanding common pitfalls and mis-conceptions or investigating the effects of different learning styles. These are all important, but not the focus of this project. This project will differ from a number of others in it's narrow pursuit of content volume. Content, content and more content. The goal is to have 1000 animations within 3 to 5 yrs (after first going online in Oct 2008).
Research into the effective use of these materials would be left to others to pursue. Users who wish to grab items for use in more structured virtual lessons/webpages/presentations are encouraged to do so. Perhaps a greater focus on pedagogy leads to a greater sense of 'ownership' of the materials; a desire to see them used the right way. As it is, this developer has yet to encounter a science teacher who had to be convinced of the value of animations and simulations for teaching.
Pedagogy is not completey absent either. Every animation can be followed as a link to its own page which will contain a discussion of the principles being illustrated and its relationships to other items. In this material there is a lot of science and math that can learned at this site. But as an overall organizational strategy, this material is underneath rather than on top.
1000 Animations, You've Got To Be Kidding?
It is the firm belief of the site developer that an easy to navigate, copyright free source of several thousand animations for the physical sciences and mathematics would be a great thing to have exist and will be developed by some group someday. The only reason it doesn't exist yet is the internet is too young. It will take time to build such a site and it will not likely bring much wealth to the creators; but it will be a boon to educators, students, and hobbyists alike.
The reason for thousands of items is not that they are all masterpieces, and you'll want to use them all in the order provided, but instead to have enough from which to pick and choose favorites. The vision is that the user will browse quickly through galleries while thinking - "too small", "too slow", "too simple", "nope", "nice idea, but I'd redo this and this", "interesting", "ooh this is nice, my students need to see this one". That is certainly this developer's response when surfing through other websites of educational material.
Several thousand animations is not overkill to cover the wealth of topics of interest. There will be many items that are variations on the same topic. The developer has compiled an idea folder and looking through these notes there are ~25 candidates involving sinusoidal waves (static and traveling), ~25 candidates involving the Newton's Cradle apparatus, ~25 candidates involving aspects of satellites orbiting the earth, ~25 candidates involving Coulomb's law with a few to several charged particles. This is already a 100 items with coverage of only four topics.
Looking at the large textbooks for the one year introductory College Physics sequence, one might find a total count of pictures and figures in the 500-1000 range. A significant portion of these static images could be more effective as animations or applets. The main obstacle is development time (and the associated cost). That same text might have a companion CD with 30 animations and 15 applets. Someday this balance will shift. The transformation of educational materials is still in its infancy.
Animations vs Applets
The initial phase for this website will focus on animated gifs. Animated gifs are very portable, easy to view, small in size and well suited to imagery with a low number of colors. They can be downloaded and dropped directly into a webpage or a PowerPoint slideshow. They can be readily separated back into individual frames, used as fodder for another project or converted to other movie formats.
There is no question that as an educational tool, applets (where the user can use sliders, buttons or other inputs to instantly see the results of modifying parameters) are superior to canned animations. But these are generally not as easy to create or as easy for a user to download and adapt for their own use. And also ... well ... okay the site developer is still learning Java. The long term plan is to eventually move into applets as well.
In the meantime, an animation offers a very powerful and versatile medium. Even if one did have an applet illustrating a specific concept, one could imagine then making a 'movie' of the applet screen output with a series of optimal parameter choices. Basically like watching someone else manipulate the simulation. Many of the animations here will naturally suggest an applet version, in fact the site could be viewed as an idea bank for applets.