Encouraging A Physics Student

  • #1
sensawunder
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My 14 year old son loves reading about particle physics and astronomy but hates his physics class. He said to me, "Mom, it's all about motion and vectors. It's boring." How do I encourage him to stick out the foundational stuff when he's really interested in quantum mechanics and dark matter? Is there some way of showing how it's relevant to what he is interested in so he will keep it up?
 

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  • #2
PhanthomJay
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How's he doing in Math(s), (Algebra, Geometry, Trig)? That's the key as to whether he'll develop an interest in the equations behind the Cosmos and Quantum theories. Very very tough stuff. But once you get beyond Vectors and the motion equations, Physics gets more interesting, so he might want to hang in there. I'm surprised he's taking Physics at such a young age. Otherwise, he may be more interested in other matters, with Cosmology as a 'hobby', as it is mine.
 
  • #3
Choppy
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Many things in life are like that. If you want to become a concert pianist, you have to start with basic scales and fingering. If you want to play professional hockey, you have to master basic skating and puck handling drills. Similarly, if you want to pursue physics, you need a solid foundation in its classical elements.

I would keep encouraging him to read up on the things that interest him. The key, I think, is to get him to come up with his own questions about how things work and then let his curiousity drive him forward.

You could also encourage him to get involved in something like a science fair project. He likely won't be doing any quantum mechanics there, but he may have fun thinking outside the box and doing more than just solving word problems.
 
  • #4
Hellohi
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Hello, If I may add, If he doesn't like any of that stuff, then not only explain the importance to him( if you already have), but also tell him about great physicans. Maybe hes aiming for the top so, maybe he will try to learn it if he hears about people who became successful from learning the same thing he should.

Best of luck. o:)
 
  • #5
Angry Citizen
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My 14 year old son loves reading about particle physics and astronomy but hates his physics class. He said to me, "Mom, it's all about motion and vectors. It's boring." How do I encourage him to stick out the foundational stuff when he's really interested in quantum mechanics and dark matter? Is there some way of showing how it's relevant to what he is interested in so he will keep it up?

Sounds like he's one of the victims of popular science. Nothing against your son, but if you don't find the kinematics vaguely interesting, then you will be wiped out later on. Physics is a pyramid. Quantum mechanics and dark matter are way at the top. In fact, without kinematics, we would never have known dark matter existed.
 
  • #6
Pengwuino
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Sounds like he's one of the victims of popular science. Nothing against your son, but if you don't find the kinematics vaguely interesting, then you will be wiped out later on. Physics is a pyramid. Quantum mechanics and dark matter are way at the top. In fact, without kinematics, we would never have known dark matter existed.

I disagree, kinematics are BORING.

My advice for the OP is to just keep at it. The amazing thing about physics in my mind is this: you develop this classical formulation of physics with vectors and motion and along the lines you get to things like Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations and it all might seem a bit stale. However, everything you learn comes from a handful of basic ideas and you can become quite amazed that those handful of basic ideas can describe everything in your day to day experience.

But then you start reaching the era of Einstein and Schrodinger. You take these small little problems of their day such as the speed of light being constant, an inconsistency between electromagnetism and mechanics that as students are educated tends to come up as the ol' electron crashing into the proton of a hydrogen atom problem, and you expand on them. Like an overflowing dam, your ideas of what "boring" physics tells us goes completely out the window. You get cosmology, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, general/special relativity, all the "cool" parts of physics. And oddly enough, even the modern areas of physics use the ideas developed in the "boring" era of physics.

Personally I was educated with classical and modern physics both being shown to me at roughly the same time as is standard these days. The thing is, and maybe I'm wrong about this, but I was never really as amazed with modern physics as most people are. I personally find the excitement of modern physics from how it can massively deviate from classical physics with just a small change in the foundation. Of course, when you get both classical and modern physics at the same time, it's not so amazing since you didn't fully grasp how concrete classical physics was so that when modern physics comes along, you don't feel that it's so amazing. But that's just my opinion.
 
  • #7
Kevin_Axion
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To tell the truth, not many people like kinematics. It isn't very exciting, in fact if you enjoy Physics, kinematics is something you've likely thought about for quite sometime so none of it seems new or fashionable, classical motion is logical to say the least.
 
  • #8
G01
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I disagree, kinematics are BORING.

I agree. As a physicist, I find kinematics to be VERY dull. I majored in physics because I wanted to learn more about electron orbitals, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, time dilation, but NOT kinematics! However, I knew that the fundamentals were going to be essential to learn about the more interesting stuff. So, I told myself that I would learn stuff I found boring, just in case I needed it to learn the cool stuff later on. Basically, this outlook has gotten me into my third year of grad school, so it worked for me!

The mathematical and logical tools developed in intro mechanics are essential for any non trivial study of more interesting things. Perhaps pointing this out to the student may help with motivation. You could also recommend some good popular science books to read on the side. This will help "quench his thirst" for more exotic material, and you can use the books as a way to point out that he will eventually be able to study the cool stuff in more depth if he pushes through the intro material.
 
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  • #9
deluks917
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Maybe he finds the material too easy. If this is the case and depending on his level you might want to introduce him to some more advanced material. Does he know or is he ready to learn any calculus for example?
 
  • #10
sensawunder
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Sounds like he's one of the victims of popular science. Nothing against your son, but if you don't find the kinematics vaguely interesting, then you will be wiped out later on. Physics is a pyramid. Quantum mechanics and dark matter are way at the top. In fact, without kinematics, we would never have known dark matter existed.

Science fiction got me interested in science, enough so that I studied it in uni. I figure it's better that he is interested in popular science at his age than not. When he's reading about the LHC and the standard model, it's hard to get excited about vectors. I know there are links between the foundation and the higher level physics but convincing him of that is not easy. Someone needs to write a popular science book that makes those links clear. Anyway, thanks for the advice!
 
  • #11
sensawunder
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Maybe he finds the material too easy. If this is the case and depending on his level you might want to introduce him to some more advanced material. Does he know or is he ready to learn any calculus for example?

They don't do calculus until later. In fact, at his age, they don't study physics as a separate discipline. It's just one section of their "science" course and it's really basic. He does like math so that's a plus. I think what he wants is context. Why is this important to study? How is it relevant to what interests him? I try to explain as best I can but I'm no expert.
 
  • #12
sensawunder
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How's he doing in Math(s), (Algebra, Geometry, Trig)? That's the key as to whether he'll develop an interest in the equations behind the Cosmos and Quantum theories. Very very tough stuff. But once you get beyond Vectors and the motion equations, Physics gets more interesting, so he might want to hang in there. I'm surprised he's taking Physics at such a young age. Otherwise, he may be more interested in other matters, with Cosmology as a 'hobby', as it is mine.

I'm a science geek and so we watch a lot of popular science shows on tv (Nova, Horizon) and I have many of the popular science books (Hawking, Kako, Greene) and magazines (Discover, SciAm, Astronomy, PopSci) so he's picked up quite a lot of physics and astronomy from these sources. When he took a unit on physics this year as part of his science course he thought it was so boring in comparison to the more interesting issues about fundamental particles and cosmology. I want to convince him to hang tight and it will get more interesting.
 
  • #13
Ashuron
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For many people, those popular science books that your son may be reading are the reason they enter physics program..

So the motivation perhaps will come itself, when he realize he need to have the basics first before learning those more advanced stuff..
 
  • #14
Angry Citizen
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Science fiction got me interested in science, enough so that I studied it in uni. I figure it's better that he is interested in popular science at his age than not. When he's reading about the LHC and the standard model, it's hard to get excited about vectors. I know there are links between the foundation and the higher level physics but convincing him of that is not easy. Someone needs to write a popular science book that makes those links clear. Anyway, thanks for the advice!

I've thought about doing just that in a couple decades. I don't find kinematics 'boring' persay so much as I only find it, as I said, vaguely interesting. For instance, discovering that gravity had no effect on the horizontal component of a thrown baseball, while probably obvious to a lot of people, didn't come to my attention until I understood vector algebra. I thought that was neat as hell. I once derived an equation for determining the acceleration of a van using a steel ball hung from the inside roof on a string. Also neat as hell. Using kinematics, an accurate angle-finding device, and a stop watch, I could compute exactly where that van was and determine its speed at any time.

But then, I'm an engineering student, not a physicist. I'm the guy who could end up designing odometers and speedometers. Kinematics plays a big role in my life. I like knowing how things can be modeled using the language of nature. It may just be the nerd in me, but being able to say a=(v2-v02)/(2Δx) is much better than just being able to describe the notion of acceleration in words. Math is beauty.
 
  • #15
Phyisab****
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Real physics is hard work. That's just how it is.
 
  • #16
Angry Citizen
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They don't do calculus until later. In fact, at his age, they don't study physics as a separate discipline. It's just one section of their "science" course and it's really basic. He does like math so that's a plus. I think what he wants is context. Why is this important to study? How is it relevant to what interests him? I try to explain as best I can but I'm no expert.

Direct him here. Even with my limited knowledge of physics, I could extol on the "whys" and connect him to the popular science stuff. Like I already mentioned, it was a discrepancy in the vector field of a galaxy that led to the entire concept of dark matter. It was a discrepancy in the calculated orbit of Mercury (and thus the gravity force) compared to the observed orbit that led, in part, to Einstein's general relativity. You can compute the speed of light just from knowing wave properties (wavelength times frequency equals velocity of wave propagation). Many things may be traced back to basic kinematics.
 
  • #17
Kevin_Axion
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I agree kinematics is useful and very revealing, but it's just ordinary.
 
  • #18
Fizex
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Edit: Maybe you could work on improving his attention span?
 
  • #19
symbolipoint
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He is only 14, and in a science class (highschool?) which includes a unit on Physics --
It is boring, not surprising. Too many "units" or topics treated too superficially. College is much better, since students study in distinctly dedicated courses. He will need to be good at Math when he starts that, since a real college/university level beginning Physics course requires strong Algebra, at least basic Trigonometry, and at least initially some Calculus. MUCH MUCH Mathematics. Yes also vectors - no way around this. At least the instruction in those courses will be far more thorough than what he is seeing right now in his science class. The kinematics material will be more detailed with more variety within the topic, which hopefully, your son will find more interesting than what he deals with now.
 
  • #20
Angry Citizen
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If I were you, I wouldn't stress him out just yet. He's 14, and 'watered down' doesn't even begin to describe his coursework so far (it won't even begin to describe his junior or senior level high school physics class, to be honest). Don't pull the reins too tight or the horse will buck. I would stress strong mathematics rather than worrying about physics just yet. Trust me when I say that his intro physics class in his freshman year in college will run through so many topics so quickly that he won't have time to be bored. Also, let him know that if he doesn't like it he can always switch to something else. Please don't be one of those parents who keeps a firm grip on their child's education after high school! :)
 
  • #21
thegreenlaser
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Just because particle physics and astronomy interest him now doesn't necessarily mean he would like them at a college level. I mean, yeah the concepts may sound magical and marvelous now, but when it comes to actually doing calculations and working on specific problems he may not be nearly as interested.

Not to say you shouldn't encourage him, but don't assume that the interest he has now is going to carry on forever. When I was 14 I was obsessed with history and my dream was to get my PhD and teach History at a university. I constantly read about history in my free time, and I truly enjoyed it. Now I couldn't even imagine enjoying history as a major much less as a career, and I'm loving math and physics. I've always been good at math and physics, but I never really grew to enjoy them until grade 12.

Probably the best option in jr/sr high school (which I'm glad I did) is to make him take a wide variety of courses (especially sciences/maths: biology, chem, physics, math, calculus) so that he has a wide variety of options going into college (if he does indeed decide he wants to go to college at all) and he'll have a better idea of what kinds of things he likes. And do encourage him to work hard in whatever he does. He's never going to find a degree or job consisting of 100% stuff he loves, there's always going to be boring stuff that he'll have to plow through and succeed at regardless of whether it interests him or not.
 
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  • #22
twofish-quant
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Also you might give him French and Taylor's Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. It's got enough stuff in it that I think he'll be able to understand some of it, but it's also got enough about vectors, so that you will get the reaction "oh, so that's why vectors are useful."
 
  • #23
Bradwast88
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Ask him to climb to upper step of the ladder from the bottom with one step.Then he will understand.
 
  • #24
physics girl phd
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kinematics are BORING.

I also agree (my favorite stuff is EM field theory and optics). I often wonder how I ever hacked it through to get an advanced degree in physics while hating classical mechanics (in initial Newtonian form and, later, Hamiltonian / Lagrangian forms -- which better relate directly to Quantum).

It was only much much later when I started teaching physics that I started to find some of kinematics fun -- in, of all things, a "How Things Work" course that uses minimal math, and vectors just conceptually.. not necessarily algebraically -- you might want to check out his text (which is paperback and available used).

Especially, you might want to have him explore on his own (and with your help) some topics that might be covered later in his class (or not at all, if the instructor ends up spending TOO much time on vectors/kinematics -- a common issue especially with new instructors).

Besides the previously mentioned "How things Work" (Louis Bloomfield), some other simple activity-based science books for younger kids (that I have in my office at a quick glance) are: the Exploratorium Snackbook, Mr Wizard's Supermarket Science, Simple Science Experiments, Physics for Every Kid (and the complementary Chemistry for Every Kid), 75 Physics Demos, etc. -- some of these are better than others .

Also: In my classes, I use simulations from the PHET site from the University of Colorado: http://phet.colorado.edu/" [Broken]. This site also has teacher-written (and professor-written) activities and information to go with the simulations.
 
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  • #25
sensawunder
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I also agree (my favorite stuff is EM field theory and optics). I often wonder how I ever hacked it through to get an advanced degree in physics while hating classical mechanics (in initial Newtonian form and, later, Hamiltonian / Lagrangian forms -- which better relate directly to Quantum).

It was only much much later when I started teaching physics that I started to find some of kinematics fun -- in, of all things, a "How Things Work" course that uses minimal math, and vectors just conceptually.. not necessarily algebraically -- you might want to check out his text (which is paperback and available used).

Especially, you might want to have him explore on his own (and with your help) some topics that might be covered later in his class (or not at all, if the instructor ends up spending TOO much time on vectors/kinematics -- a common issue especially with new instructors).

Besides the previously mentioned "How things Work" (Louis Bloomfield), some other simple activity-based science books for younger kids (that I have in my office at a quick glance) are: the Exploratorium Snackbook, Mr Wizard's Supermarket Science, Simple Science Experiments, Physics for Every Kid (and the complementary Chemistry for Every Kid), 75 Physics Demos, etc. -- some of these are better than others .

Also: In my classes, I use simulations from the PHET site from the University of Colorado: http://phet.colorado.edu/" [Broken]. This site also has teacher-written (and professor-written) activities and information to go with the simulations.

Wow - thanks! I will check them out.

I remember sitting in my high school chemistry classes and thinking that I wouldn't get to do the really interesting stuff until university and I was right -- the chemistry in high school was boring by comparison. I really wanted to learn chemistry so I understand my son's frustration that the physics he is being introduced to seems so remote from the physics he is interested in. I was able to stick it (high school) out and then take chemistry in university. Like someone said above, interests can change. My interests changed from biochem to molecular genetics and cell biology and then of all things to science policy so I do understand that he may decide he prefers Medieval Literature over physics. My concern is that students have to choose which sciences to take in the higher levels -- physics and chemistry or chemistry and biology or physics and biology -- usually not all three -- and I hope he isn't put off by the initial taste of physics he gets in the early years. I took biophysics in university so I don't really know the curriculum for normal physics.
 
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  • #26
sensawunder
7
0
Ask him to climb to upper step of the ladder from the bottom with one step.Then he will understand.

Excellent analogy! I'll actually do just that. We have some construction work going on and a ladder is currently leaning against the house. I'm sure he'll roll his eyes at "mom" trying to be all smart... :)
 
  • #27
sensawunder
7
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If I were you, I wouldn't stress him out just yet. He's 14, and 'watered down' doesn't even begin to describe his coursework so far (it won't even begin to describe his junior or senior level high school physics class, to be honest). Don't pull the reins too tight or the horse will buck. I would stress strong mathematics rather than worrying about physics just yet. Trust me when I say that his intro physics class in his freshman year in college will run through so many topics so quickly that he won't have time to be bored. Also, let him know that if he doesn't like it he can always switch to something else. Please don't be one of those parents who keeps a firm grip on their child's education after high school! :)

I'm not at all that kind of parent - at least I don't think so. I just want to encourage (not force) his interest as it is an interest I share. I think that physics and other sciences open up so much understanding and awe, at least for me. You are right that strong math skills are important and luckily he finds it pretty easy so far. He is only 14 but physics and astronomy are just two things he has really shown that "wow" response to and I think that's a good thing.
 
  • #28
Kevin_Axion
907
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I still don't understand how he's learning vectors in grade 8/9, is he in a gifted program?
 
  • #29
MaxwellsDemon
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I always loved kinematics...its all about predicting the future! Take out a cannon and you can predict when and where the ball will land. You can know how high a bouncy ball will bounce, how fast the roller coaster will go, how long it'll take to reach grandma's house and how many times the car tires will rotate going there. You can know how hard to hit the pool ball to knock it into the corner pocket. You can know how high the bath water will rise on your rubber ducky. You can know how many helium balloons it'll take to make you float away. I always thought classical physics gave me a god like knowledge about the world around me...I enjoyed knowing things like how to find the height a baseball reached based on the time it took to hit the ground...or knowing how I would have to hit it to get a home run. Since when is predicting the future boring?
 
  • #30
BoltzmanBrain
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I still don't understand how he's learning vectors in grade 8/9, is he in a gifted program?
He should be in his first/second year of high school. I first learned vectors in a Grade 10 general science course, but high school starts in Grade 10 where I live, so elsewhere they might start earlier.
 
  • #31
thegreenlaser
525
16
Wow - thanks! I will check them out.

I remember sitting in my high school chemistry classes and thinking that I wouldn't get to do the really interesting stuff until university and I was right -- the chemistry in high school was boring by comparison. I really wanted to learn chemistry so I understand my son's frustration that the physics he is being introduced to seems so remote from the physics he is interested in. I was able to stick it (high school) out and then take chemistry in university. Like someone said above, interests can change. My interests changed from biochem to molecular genetics and cell biology and then of all things to science policy so I do understand that he may decide he prefers Medieval Literature over physics. My concern is that students have to choose which sciences to take in the higher levels -- physics and chemistry or chemistry and biology or physics and biology -- usually not all three -- and I hope he isn't put off by the initial taste of physics he gets in the early years. I took biophysics in university so I don't really know the curriculum for normal physics.

It should be reasonably easy to take all three sciences as far as they go in high school. I did it, and the most homework I ever had was thanks to me squishing calculus and physics into 2.5 months each when they were both supposed to take the entire year. Even then, my workload was pretty light.

In first year university, I'd be surprised if they don't allow taking all three. I know that for science degrees at my university there's absolutely no problem in taking two courses from physics, bio, and chem. Usually courses from two of those are required and then the others are optional. There's also quite a few major options that mix and match different amounts of each science. Maybe it's different up here, but I'd be surprised universities aren't accommodating to people who know they're interested in science, but aren't quite sure which science. At least at my university, they're realizing that there's a lot of kids like this.

As to interestingness, for me at least, the physics in first year uni is WAY more interesting than high school physics. What frustrated me most in high school was how everything was restricted to a few select cases that just so happened to be solvable with only algebra. Suddenly in first year uni you've got a good enough foundation in calculus and linear algebra that you can start to look at real science. I didn't like electromagnetism in high school because it was a lot of "trust me, it works this way". Now, with some basic integral calculus and vector math under my belt, I can not only see why I would have had no hope understanding this stuff in high school, but I can actually start to understand how things really work. It's still the tip of the ice-berg, but at least I feel like I'm actually learning real physics.
 
  • #32
hikaru1221
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They don't do calculus until later. In fact, at his age, they don't study physics as a separate discipline. It's just one section of their "science" course and it's really basic. He does like math so that's a plus. I think what he wants is context. Why is this important to study? How is it relevant to what interests him? I try to explain as best I can but I'm no expert.

Hello,

I think if he truly likes physics, sooner or later he will overcome the math. I came to physics, driven by physical phenomena, without any formulas in mind or anticipating the need for strong foundation in math when pursuing physics. When I entered high school, as I started to dig into physics, I realized math was crucial for studying physics, and I started to learn math beyond the standard curriculum just because I wanted to understand what exactly the physics books were talking about (I used books for college those days). I recalled that I once even learned differentiation and integration within a night.

One of my friend is also the same: unlike me fascinated by everyday phenomena, she was intrigued by "nano" things (I put "nano" in inverted commas as I guess she didn't get exactly what phenomena at nano scale were like), and now she's pursuing material engineering (higher education in physics in my country isn't really good, so that's why my friend goes for engineering).

Your son is still young, so I don't see there is a reason trying to convince him to learn math/ vectors/ etc. Instead, I think you should let him discover things by himself. When comes the right time, he will find math essential and useful.
 

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