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Learning to Program with MATLAB: Building GUI Tools

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To learn how to program a computer in a modern language with serious graphical capabilities, is to take hold of a tool of remarkable flexibility that has the power to provide profound insight. This text is primarily aimed at being a first course in programming, and is oriented toward integration with science, mathematics, and engineering. It is also useful for more advanced students and researchers who want to rapidly acquire the ability to easily build useful graphical tools for exploring computational models. The MATLAB programming language provides an excellent introductory language, with built-in graphical, mathematical, and user-interface capabilities. The goal is that the student learns to build computational models with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that enable exploration of model behavior. This GUI tool-building approach has been used at multiple educational levels: graduate courses, intermediate undergraduate courses, an introductory engineering course for first-year college students, and high school junior and senior-level courses.

TheMATLAB programming language, descended from FORTRAN, has evolved to include many powerful and convenient graphical and analysis tools. It has become an important platform for engineering and science education, as well as research. MATLAB is a very valuable first programming language, and for many will be the preferred language for most, if not all, of the computational work they do. Of course, C++, Java, Python, and many other languages play crucial roles in other domains. Several language features make the MATLAB language easier for beginners than many alternatives: it is interpreted rather than compiled; variable types and array sizes need not be declared in advance; it is not strongly typed; vector, matrix, multidimensional array, and complex numbers are basic data types; there is a sophisticated integrated development and debugging environment; and a rich set of mathematical and graphics functions is provided.

While computer programs can be used in many ways, the emphasis here is on building computational models, primarily of physical phenomena (though the techniques can be easily extended to other systems). A physical system is modeled first conceptually, using ideas such as momentum, force, energy, reactions, fields, etc. These concepts are expressed mathematically and applied to a particular class of problem. Such a class might be, for example, projectile motion, fluid flow, quantum evolution, electromagnetic fields, circuit equations, or Newton’s laws. Typically, the model involves a set of parameters that describe the physical system and a set of mathematical relations (systems of equations, integrals, differential equations, eigensystems, etc.). The mathematical solution process must be realized through a computational algorithm—a step-by-step procedure for calculating the desired quantities from the input parameters. The behavior of the model is then usually visualized graphically, e.g., one or more plots, bar graphs, or animations.
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