introphysics

So I Am Your Intro Physics Instructor

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I posted this elsewhere (on my personal blog), and someone mentioned that maybe it might also be useful here on PF. So I’m reproducing the entire entry here in case it might make a difference. This is essentially a “sequel” to my earlier essay on “So I am Your Academic Advisor“.

My aim in writing this piece is to try and impress upon the students in such a course of the fact that, even if they don’t want to be in that class, there is a wealth of stuff they can acquire out of it, and most of it aren’t even “physics”. I want to try and tell the students of all the important skills and knowledge that they can get that WILL become very useful for them later on in life. And I want to be quite deliberate in telling them that, rather than have them “accidentally” acquiring such skill.

So here is my essay:

Dear Students,

Welcome to the intro physics course. For many of you, this is your first college level physics course that you are taking. Hopefully, it will lay the foundation for the rest of your undergraduate education and becomes something that you will find useful.

I would like to let you know of some of my expectations from you, and would like to let you know of what you can expect from me. I know that many of you are taking this course because you have to, not because you want to. I am also aware that the majority of you are not physics majors. However, I hope to impress upon you why you would want to do well in this class. Besides the fact that it will affect your overall GPA, I want to make you aware that there are a lot of things you can learn and acquire from this class that will be very useful to you not only in your academic pursuit, but also in other parts of your life later on.

The most important point I want to make is this: while the material that we will be covering is important for you to understand to do well in this class, what is equally important is the ability in analyzing a problem that you are faced with, and figuring out how to systematically solve it. I want you to pay attention not only to the content of the course, but also to how I approach a problem and how I go about solving it. I will try to teach you the physics and also the problem-solving technique. I will try, as best as I can, describe to you what I’m thinking when I look at a problem, and how I analyze it to know what to start with and how to proceed.

Keep in mind that while this is something that I can attempt to teach you, it really is a skill that you can only acquire after repeated practice. It is very much like learning how to ride a bike. I can tell you what to do, but you’ll never gain the skill to ride a bike until you have practiced several times, and taken a tumble here and there. The homework that you will have to do is meant to be your vehicle to practice on to acquire such skill.

At some point, you may question why we are studying certain things, or why we are trying to tackle a certain type of problem. One example that I can bring up is the projectile motion that you will see and have to solve till you’re sick of it. You may find it strange that we are asking you to solve various configurations of the projectile motion problem. Are we trying to train you to be an artillery person? No.

You see, I could teach you that F=ma and then walk away. There. We’ve covered a huge section of our semester already. Now, go use that to build me a house. Chances are, you can’t. What you’ve received is only a superficial knowledge. You may know the relationship between F, m, and a, but you don’t understand how it is used or how it can be applied. Knowing how to do that will give you knowledge beyond the superficial level. So we try to apply F=ma in a number of examples. Unfortunately, the examples that we can use that are simple enough are limited. We can’t exactly apply all the real-life conditions to an example because it will them make the problem too complex, and you will be thoroughly confused. You will be distracted by the complexity and lose the focus on how F=ma is applied. So we have to deal with simplified examples on how we use F=ma, and this is where examples of projectile motion, motion of objects sliding on inclined planes, etc.. come in. We are not trying to turn in you experts in artillery or building a slide. You should not be focusing on the nature of the example. You should be focusing on the aim of these examples, i.e. how F=ma is applied.

Now, because I want you to understand both the material and the technique, you should not hesitate to ask me questions if you do not understand anything. This is especially true if you do not understand why, in solving a problem, I would do such-and-such, or how I know to start with such-and-such if it is not obvious to you. It is important that you make sure you understand things every step of the way, because we will be building on what you learn early in the semester and apply it to more complex situations later on. If you start with a shaky foundation, you will not be able to master the material that you will be faced with later in the semester. So please, ask me questions in class, or come to my office hours. I have been paid to serve you and impart knowledge and skills. Make use of this opportunity.

My last advice to you here is that the process of learning is a very private, internal activity. While you have your texts, your notes, your instructor, etc. to help you, in the end, it is YOU who have to make the effort to acquire such knowledge and skills. It must sink in for you. At some point, you have to figure things out for yourself. It means that you need to understand things on your own, and be able to do your own thinking. You have to figure our how you understand things and what you need to do to get something.

And this is where this physics course can be of a tremendous value to you, not just for your future academic pursuit, but in your later life. To put it bluntly, you will consciously learn how to think and how to analyze a problem. You will learn to what degree you can say that A causes B, and how can you figure out what affects what. This ability transcends a physics class and will be extremely useful to you as you become a responsible citizen.

I hope you have a productive and enjoyable time in this class. Now let’s get to work.

Originally posted on Feb7-13

 

PhD Physics

Accelerator physics, photocathodes, field-enhancement. tunneling spectroscopy, superconductivity

14 replies
  1. LawrenceWirth
    LawrenceWirth says:

    Thank you!  I teach at the high school level, and most of my students will not be science majors.  Quite often, when the going gets rough, their counselor will counsel them to drop the class so as not to affect their GPA.  Often this is actually encouraged by college admissions officers who will tell a potential business major they don't "need" physics.

    I have said some similar things you have written in your essay to my students, but you have elegantly and thoughtfully described why all students "need" physics.  I especially like "OK students – remember that F=ma and we are done with semester 1" example.

  2. fresh_42
    fresh_42 says:

    Believe it or not. I once got at a relatively high speed (~ 170 km/h) in a one-sided aquaplaning. My only thought has been: don't apply additional forces, i.e. neither steer nor brake, simply sail through by inertia. I even softened my grip on the wheel a little. Beside a real huge shock, nothing else happened. (It's amazing how intensive life becomes when you're all of a sudden full of adrenalin.)

    Or to put it the other way around: those who slept in their basic physic courses appear on Monday mornings in the newspaper, which report on their meeting with a tree on their way home from a disco to impress some girls. (This happens on such a regular basis, esp. in early autumn, that I always wonder why so few among those affected recognize this pattern.)

  3. Dr. Courtney
    Dr. Courtney says:

    There was no belittling of artillery people there.

    Anyway, your objection to this reminds me of this!:-p

    P.S.

    Sorry…couldn't resist!:biggrin:

    Great memory.

    My point was more that broadened application and importance of the skills learned in solving prototypical physics should not diminish the original importance and relevance of those problems.

    There was a time when artillery (and projectile motion more generally) were on the forefront of physics.

    Important questions remain, and if we (physicists) leave too much real science as a mop up operation to the engineers, they tend to put too much faith in the equations and stop asking the important questions like "how accurate is that?" and "does that equation apply under these conditions?"

  4. Mister T
    Mister T says:

    Societal attitudes towards education are, of course, changing. It's important that we remain aware of how these changes have affected students. For example, 15 years of "no child left behind" and the like have left many students with the embedded notion that teaching is the only factor, or at least the only significant factor, that accounts for learning. Consequently, if there's no learning going on in the mind of the student, it's the teacher's fault.

    Lest you label me a curmudgeon, I will tell you that I very much enjoy teaching college-level introductory physics and that I have a significant number of students who have that all-important combination of a willingness to learn, the ability to learn, and who do the work.

    My point is simply this. For students who believe that it's up to the teacher to do their learning for them, motivational speeches that focus on the importance of learning physics will unfortunately tend to reinforce that belief. The message they receive is that this teacher is willing to work very hard to get me to learn. Let's hope he comes through for me.

  5. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    Societal attitudes towards education are, of course, changing. It's important that we remain aware of how these changes have affected students. For example, 15 years of "no child left behind" and the like have left many students with the embedded notion that teaching is the only factor, or at least the only significant factor, that accounts for learning. Consequently, if there's no learning going on in the mind of the student, it's the teacher's fault.

    Lest you label me a curmudgeon, I will tell you that I very much enjoy teaching college-level introductory physics and that I have a significant number of students who have that all-important combination of a willingness to learn, the ability to learn, and who do the work.

    My point is simply this. For students who believe that it's up to the teacher to do their learning for them, motivational speeches that focus on the importance of learning physics will unfortunately tend to reinforce that belief. The message they receive is that this teacher is willing to work very hard to get me to learn. Let's hope he comes through for me.

    But this is exactly why I wrote this:

    My last advice to you here is that the process of learning is a very private, internal activity. While you have your texts, your notes, your instructor, etc. to help you, in the end, it is YOU who have to make the effort to acquire such knowledge and skills. It must sink in for you. At some point, you have to figure things out for yourself. It means that you need to understand things on your own, and be able to do your own thinking. You have to figure our how you understand things and what you need to do to get something.

    One can only lead a horse to water. The art of successfully leading that horse to water, and to make the horse realize that it needs to drink, is what an educator does.

    Zz.

  6. Mister T
    Mister T says:

    But this is exactly why I wrote this:

    I understand. Mine is a cautionary note. Many of these students will interpret what you wrote to mean that YOU are taking on the responsibility of making those things happen. And if they don't happen, it's your fault.

    Consider for example a conversation you might have with a student who has done poorly on your first test. You remind him of the advice you gave him …

    My last advice to you here is that the process of learning is a very private, internal activity. While you have your texts, your notes, your instructor, etc. to help you, in the end, it is YOU who have to make the effort to acquire such knowledge and skills.

    His response will be that he tried to do that but it didn't work. In his mind he will be thinking that the blame falls on you for this, not him. Yes, he didn't study properly. Yes, he lacks the skills to succeed. But despite all that, it is YOU who is supposed to be teaching him. Either you failed or your test was too hard. You are a bad teacher.

    Now, why would he think that way instead of the way you told him to think? It could be that in his K-12 experiences the blame always fell on the teachers. He will need to learn your lesson the hard way. That's all I'm saying here. It's just a cautionary note to (especially new) teachers about their own expectations.

    (Note that in my example it's possible that the student is clever enough to know exactly what's going on, and he is actually playing you. In that case it makes no difference. His lesson is that he can no longer get away with kind of a con. He is what some people call the "con artist". He's smart enough to do well in school, but instead he procrastinates and plays the angles. It's best to just pretend you're not on to him, because if you do let on you're just giving him an excuse to argue. You know you're dealing with a con artist when you feel the need to draw a flow chart in order to follow his convoluted arguments and if-then scenarios.)

    Again, I want to impress upon you that I'm really not a curmudgeon. Most of my students are not con artists. Some of them work hard and deserve my guidance, even if they aren't passing the course. I really do enjoy teaching and find it very rewarding. I will admit, though, that dealing with the difficult student is often a challenge to my well-being.

  7. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    I understand. Mine is a cautionary note. Many of these students will interpret what you wrote to mean that YOU are taking on the responsibility of making those things happen. And if they don't happen, it's your fault.

    Consider for example a conversation you might have with a student who has done poorly on your first test. You remind him of the advice you gave him …

    His response will be that he tried to do that but it didn't work. In his mind he will be thinking that the blame falls on you for this, not him. Yes, he didn't study properly. Yes, he lacks the skills to succeed. But despite all that, it is YOU who is supposed to be teaching him. Either you failed or your test was too hard. You are a bad teacher.

    Now, why would he think that way instead of the way you told him to think? It could be that in his K-12 experiences the blame always fell on the teachers. He will need to learn your lesson the hard way. That's all I'm saying here. It's just a cautionary note to (especially new) teachers about their own expectations.

    (Note that in my example it's possible that the student is clever enough to know exactly what's going on, and he is actually playing you. In that case it makes no difference. His lesson is that he can no longer get away with kind of a con. He is what some people call the "con artist". He's smart enough to do well in school, but instead he procrastinates and plays the angles. It's best to just pretend you're not on to him, because if you do let on you're just giving him an excuse to argue. You know you're dealing with a con artist when you feel the need to draw a flow chart in order to follow his convoluted arguments and if-then scenarios.)

    Again, I want to impress upon you that I'm really not a curmudgeon. Most of my students are not con artists. Some of them work hard and deserve my guidance, even if they aren't passing the course. I really do enjoy teaching and find it very rewarding. I will admit, though, that dealing with the difficult student is often a challenge to my well-being.

    I don't believe that has ever happened to me, or at least, not that I'm aware of. I have had students who think they are "entitled" to things, but not the extent that they blamed me for their failures, mainly because if I'm such a bad instructor, how come there are students in the same class getting A's AND enjoying/understand the material rather well?

    As an instructor, I'm no longer surprised to see my end-of-course review, because in the same class, some students will say that I'm a god-send, while others will say that I'm the devil incarnate. There is absolutely nothing one can do to please everyone. So on this particular issue, I have never encounter what you described as a problem, even as a minor one. The whole point of this introduction is to lay out expectations for both sides.

    I will also say that students with the attitude that you describe will crash-and-burn not just in my class, but also in others. So maybe this is part of their growing up process, that eventually, and hopefully, they'll realize that the problem isn't other people, but it is them. But then again, looking at the political nastiness that has been going on during this election year, maybe these people never did grow out of that.

    Zz.

  8. bhobba
    bhobba says:

    For me an intro to physics course is just the down-payment for understanding the truly magical stuff like Landau Mechanics.

    I sometimes think a good high school physics course followed by Landau might be a good path for the better students – certainly philosophy types for which it would likely be a revelation.  They simply do not understand physics.

    Thanks

    Bill

  9. Dr. Courtney
    Dr. Courtney says:

    For me an intro to physics course is just the down-payment for understanding the truly magical stuff like Landau Mechanics.

    I sometimes think a good high school physics course followed by Landau might be a good path for the better students – certainly philosophy types for which it would likely be a revelation.  They simply do not understand physics.

    Thanks

    Bill

    True enough.  But I always remember that for most students in my class, the course they are in NOW is the last physics course they will ever take.

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