Virginia releases the first open-source textbook for public review

Virginia has released a beta version of the first open-source online textbook, a collaborative effort by the state departments of Technology and Education and volunteer educators, engineers and scientists using Web-based tools to quickly up-date educational resources.

The book, titled "21st Century Physics FlexBook: A Compilation of Contemporary and Emerging Technologies," has been produced using the FlexBook platform developed by the CK-12 Foundation of Palo Alto, Calif., and could provide students with timely information about nanoscience, dark matter, quarks and leptons.

FlexBook provides an environment for development and display of educational materials available for any teacher to use, share and adapt at no cost, using software and tools such as Java, Django, Ajax and the Google Web tool kit. The foundation developed its own value-added layer to display content.

The Virginia Physics FlexBook is an effort to update educational material more quickly than can be done with traditional textbooks. The typical review and procurement cycle of states and school systems, coupled with the several years it can take for changes to make their way into published texts, means that students in even the best schools could be using material that is a decade or more out of date.

A recent examination of Virginia’s science education standards by a team of scientists and engineers concluded that the curriculum was inadequate to prepare students for the 21st century workforce. The textbooks and the standards on which they are based talk of cathode ray tubes, now obsolete for televisions and monitors, with no mention of LED, LCD or plasma displays. There was no mention of organic chemistry or nanoscience, and the physics material stopped well short of modern developments.

The team, lead by retired NASA research engineer Jim Batterson, recommended that teachers have access to an open-source platform that would let them develop and share their own course material in a cooperative environment, such as a wiki. When Virginia’s Technology Secretary Aneesh P. Chopra heard the recommendation, he suggested that Batterson take a look at the Flexbook platform being developed by CK-12. The result was a pilot program in which 13 educators and scientists in Virginia collaboratively produced the new online textbook.

A call for authors for the project was posted on an e-mail list serve for teachers, and Batterson ended up with 11 authors: Six kindergarten-through-12th grade teachers, three university professors and one community college professor, and one retired scientist. The team also includes Batterson as the lead, along with one university professor and a high-school student to advise and consult on the quality of the finished product.

The project was announced in October 2008, and the aggressive schedule called for the first version of the Virginia FlexBook to be available Feb. 27, a deadline that was met.

The FlexBook is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike and can be used as is, used in part, or enhanced by teachers based on their curriculum and classroom needs. While providing material outside of the Virginia physics content Standards of Learning (SOL), each chapter contains material that significantly supports current SOL, listed at the end of each chapter.

Current chapters in the FlexBook are:

Chapter 1: “Toward Understanding Gravitation” by Andy Jackson, Harrisonburg City Schools. This chapter addresses our changing understanding of gravitation and in doing so, introduces the student to a few interesting areas of astronomy and cosmology, including dark matter and dark energy.

Chapter 2: “Nuclear Energy” by David Stern, Greenbelt, Md. A short non-mathematical course introducing high school physics students and interested non-scientists to the physics of the atomic nucleus and to phenomena associated with nuclear fission.

Chapter 3: “The Standard Model” by Mike Fetsko, Henrico County Schools. This helps explain a couple of the remaining fundamental questions of physics. What are the building blocks of matter and what are the forces that hold these particles together?

Chapter 4: “Beyond the Standard Model” by Tony Wayne, Albemarle County Schools. This explains a number of current experiments in particle physics used in attempts to tease data that validates or rejects emerging theories on the fundamental building blocks of matter.

Chapter 5: "Modern Physics” by Angela Cutshaw, Newport News City Schools. This chapter leads the student through an understanding of how modern physics came about, some of its components, some of the lingering problems in its theories, and some of its implications.

Chapter 6: “Nanoscience” by Tapas Kar, Utah State University. Nanoscience is the discovery and study of novel phenomena at the molecular scale (between 10 and 100nm) and the creation of new concepts to describe them. Nanotechnology is the fabrication, production and application of man-made devices and systems by at that small scale.

Chapter 7: “Biophysics (Medical Imaging)” by David Slykhuis, James Madison University; Mark Mattson, James Madison University; and Tom O’Neill, Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School. To most students, imaging methods such as x-rays, MRI, and ultrasound are just black boxes that give the doctor a magic result. This chapter addresses these three major medical imaging technologies and their foundations in physics. Ultrasound is available in the earliest FlexBook release, followed by sections on MRI and x-ray in later releases.

Chapter 8: “Display Technologies” by Greg Mulholland, Raleigh, North Carolina. This chapter will appear in a later release of the FlexBook and will trace the development of and background physics behind lighting and display technologies from Edison’s light bulb through fluorescent bulbs, light emitting diodes (LED), Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD), and plasmas.

Chapter 9: “Kinematics” by John Ochab, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Understanding how things move is fundamental to our understanding of the physical universe. The first part of the chapter, “Motion and How to Describe It” identifies the terms used to characterize motion, and the second part studies the work done by one or more forces on one or more bodies.

Chapter 10: “Laboratory Activities” by Bruce Davidson Newport News City Schools. This chapter presents 15 physics experiments utilizing 21st century technology that can be used in the high school classroom.

Chapter 11: “Modeling and Simulation” by Mark Clemente, Virginia Beach City Schools. With the advances in technology and computer capabilities in recent years, modeling and simulation are now tools for instruction that are accessible to most classroom teachers.

Each chapter received three reviews before publication: A technical review by College of William and Mary physics professor David Armstrong, a peer review by other authors, and student reviews by high school and college students. The present release public feedback marks the fourth and final review. Release of the final version is expected in mid-March. Comments and suggestions can be sent to [email protected]. General questions on the project may be addressed to project leader Jim Batterson at [email protected].

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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