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What is missing from a general physics course?

  1. Dec 7, 2016 #1
    Hey guys,

    I am teaching general physics (among other things) at an international school. The general physics course is designed as a introduction to all students to physics. These students could be interested in physics-career or not. My principal has given me a lot of leeway in designing my curriculum, which i am trying to take advantage of. For example, i am currently in a unit based on flight. This unit takes forces to a whole new level.

    What topics do you guys think should be implemented into a general physics course?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 7, 2016 #2
    I found that college physics courses spend way too much time on classical mechanics and not enough on applicable technologies like electronics (not charges), general relativity or quantum mechanics which the really cool side of physics. It's like learning to play the piano, the longer you stay with five finger pieces for kids the greater the chance you will have of extinguishing the flame that got you started

    You have to use a carrot to get some bunnies to play.
  4. Dec 7, 2016 #3
    I have thought about teaching some modern physics, but, i feel as if you lose the hands-on applications of it. How do you remedy this?

    On a different point, i saw this textbook, Physics: A Conceptual Worldview by Kirkpatrick and Francis, that really frustrated me. According to them, "This textbook is intended for a conceptual course in introductory physics for students majoring in fields other than science, mathematics, or engineering." The word introductory really bothered me, because students who don't major in the fields listed, generally don't take more than your first course. What are the goals of a introductory, but standalone, physics course?

    You can pretty much strip off some of the more difficult math and concepts from any university level book (which is designed for students who will take more physics courses) and you end up with Physics: A Conceptual Worldview. Is that acceptable?
  5. Dec 7, 2016 #4

    Stephen Tashi

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    What math and science courses have you students taken before they enter this course ? What math will they be taking concurrent with the course?
  6. Dec 8, 2016 #5
    Some are in Alg. II and some are in Calc (and everywhere in b/t).
  7. Dec 8, 2016 #6
    In intro courses, I always pay a lot of attention to the expectations of downstream courses for which the first two semesters are a prerequisite.

    For example, at most universities, the 1st semester of general physics is a pre-requisite for several engineering courses including statics and dynamics. It is also a pre-requisite for the 2nd semester general physics course, usually focused on electricity and magnetism.

    I take great care to include all the necessary learning objectives for students to succeed in those downstream courses. I look at the syllabi for those courses, I consider how past versions of the general physics course prepared students, and I talk to interested faculty who teach those courses about how student preparation could be improved in the course I am responsible for.

    A similar approach in high school physics. How well is the high school physics course preparing students for college physics courses? But since many students in high school physics will also take college calculus and chemistry, I also take due care to make good on opportunities to better prepare students for these downstream challenges as well.

    We had a saying at the Air Force Academy, "Their success is our success." The meaning in the context was clear: don't fool yourself with how you think your students are doing in your course. Worry more about whether you have prepared them for their future challenges, and only be content when you know they are succeeding later.
  8. Dec 8, 2016 #7

    Fervent Freyja

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    Drawing and modeling courses! I cannot believe perspective training is missed in the curriculum. They are some of the most valuable courses I've taken! I prefer hand-drawing, but I guess CAD is more hip now. Will people in the future miss out on never having to learn to write by hand, just using a keyboard instead? If not, then I'm probably overestimating the value of having some basic drawing skills to assist in perspective throughout one's study of nature and it's workings... I guess it depends on the position, but physicists and engineers probably draw more than artists or children. It only makes sense...
  9. Dec 8, 2016 #8
    Looking at the table of contents it's actually not too bad, about 200 pages of classical mechanics and the rest on various modern subjects. Any physics text should not be stuck in the time of Newton, unless you are going to be a mechanical engineer. The continued focus on subjects like these are a real time waster for most of us.
  10. Dec 8, 2016 #9
    I think the biggest difference is that high school physics (non-AP) is mostly taken by students who won't go onto a major related to physics, or even science for that matter. By just preparing them for future physics and engineering courses, i am doing a lot of my students a disservice.

    I haven't really thought about that, but i really like that suggestion. Since my school is really small, we don't have courses in those courses. I perhaps can incorporate that into my course.

    My issue with it is twofold. First, conceptual physics is almost synonymous with "physics, just with less math." While this book perpetuates that stereotype, i like to think of conceptual physics as "physics, just with more words." Personally, i think i struggled the most with physics in college (especially my upperclassmen courses), because i could not grasp the concepts, which, of course, were directly tied into the math. Unfortunately, no professor, nor textbook, really stressed the concepts.

    My second issue is that it doesn't really differentiate itself from a university physics course except in difficulty of problems. This is fine for going from university physics to upperclassmen physics to graduate level physics. Students in those courses choose to major in physics or engineering. But for students who see the world in a completely different light, i don't think this is acceptable.

    Not too long ago, i read a blog by a disgruntled physics professor, who was fired from his position at Canadian school. This professor changed his entire curriculum around to answer the questions his students were genuinely interested in. Probably a better way to phrase my original question is, "What questions could we tackle using a physics mindset (model, theory, experiment, application), but are normally skipped in a typical physics course?"

    An example that i had just thought of is the physics of smell. While this topic can surely be argued as a biological topic, it is more in line with the responses i am searching for.
  11. Dec 8, 2016 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Do you have any requirements? For example, we are state-mandated to teach 80% of topics on a provided list, to ensure students can transfer within the state system and carry the credit hours with them. If you are an IB school, there may be a ‘subject guide’ that you have to follow. Maybe you have a lot of latitude to select topics.

    It’s good that you know your (typical) student’s abilities and preparation. Physics primarily differs from the other sciences in the degree that mathematics is used to model the world, and knowing how mathematically sophisticated your students are will help you be effective.

    So, if you have the ability to create your own course, I recommend that you choose topics that you find interesting and can effectively communicate to the students. For example, in my algebra-based intro physics sequence, rather than spend a lecture on statistical mechanics, I choose to spend that period covering general relativity (physics I), and rather than covering mirrors, I choose to cover polarization (physics II). That is to say, I use my 20% slice to talk about topics I'm interested in and I think my students would be interested in: radiation biology, digital cameras, sports (not just ballistics but also collisions and safety equipment), the list goes on.

    Not everyone agrees with my choices, but that’s what academic freedom is all about.

    So to your second question, since you've taken intro physics, what do wish was covered in introductory physics? I'm intrigued by 'flight'- there are a lot of great videos out there that really get into the details-boundary layer separation (stall), turbulence, wakes... the topic lends itself to visualization very well. I would caution against 'physics of smell', since (the royal) we don't fully understand the sense of smell yet.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2016
  12. Dec 8, 2016 #11
    That may be true where you are, but it has not been my experience or that of my colleagues. College Physics and Calculus are required courses in many college majors: biology, chemistry, forensic science, pre-med, pre-vet, pre-dental, etc., in addition to physics and engineering.

    More than half of the students we see in non-AP high school physics course are intending to move toward one of these majors, or keeping an open mind to them. High school physics without real quantitative problem solving and where one can earn an A without learning vectors does a real disservice to these students.

    In contrast, learning this is in no way a disservice to students who do not end up taking College Physics or Calculus. The quantitative problem solving skills of a good high school physics course have many applications in real life and many professions.
  13. Dec 8, 2016 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    I kind of agree- draughtsmanship is an incredibly useful skill, I can fake it (poorly) and wish I had some formal training.
  14. Dec 8, 2016 #13
    Isn't that great :) people tell me you're so smart because your dad was so smart... I respond back.. listen.. my mother took full calc / physics set for nursing in a time when women didn't become doctors. I expect both of my daughters to take a full calc / physics tour of duty if I am paying the bill.
  15. Dec 8, 2016 #14
    I'm smart because my parents met in a Physics class at LSU. My mom got a D. My dad switched his major from engineering to business.
  16. Dec 8, 2016 #15
    Smirk :) My grandfather made all his children take a full course of calc / physics, he was paying the bill and expected something in return. No business majors in the family though... just doctors / engineers / finance majors.
  17. Dec 8, 2016 #16
    For the most part, no. My general physics class is mine to design. Being a small school, i will only have the one general physics class (and one AP, but i don't have control over that curriculum).

    The only thing i am trying to abandon is the use of plug-and-chug in my physics class. "Can you use a mathematical equation to explain this phenomenon?" is more what i am going after. In that respect, my students are okay at gathering meaning from equations.

    Flight is a big one for me, because after two years of high school physics, and four years of college physics, i can't say i have ever received an explanation of how things fly. I agree with you on smell, but i guess what i am trying to get at is topics that can be discussed in terms of physics, but aren't covered in textbooks.
  18. Dec 9, 2016 #17
    Yes, but most high schoolers will go into fields not listed, than are listed. You have history majors, language majors, art majors, politics majors, law majors, etc... And you have students who don't go to college after high school, but will find a job instead.

    I disagree. I am very much against plug-and-chug problem solving. For the most part, a lot of the plug-and-chug that we do is the same for different equations. The physics for the equations changes, however. Why don't we just focus more on the physics, then? Most courses i have seen, whether as a student or a teacher, have always focused on the algebra (or later, the calculus) with very little emphasis on the physics. It is depressing, because the students did sign up for physics!

    I fully understand that students who will end up going into the majors you have listed will take physics courses. I often like to ask professionals from these majors on how they use their physics. The answers i receive don't line up with the practices of the courses. These professionals don't plug-and-chug! I want my students to be opened up to a whole new way to seeing the world around them; i don't want to hide that world in a mountain of plug-and-chug.
  19. Dec 9, 2016 #18

    Andy Resnick

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    I try and take a similar approach. Consider having your students read this; maybe have them write a response or hold a class discussion:


    Sure- and there's a near-infinite number of topics to choose. The practical problem is, you will not have any source material/homework problems/test questions available to use; you will have to generate all of that yourself. It's not necessarily hard, but it is time-consuming, and that's why I suggest to start with topics that are of interest to *you*. I have a folder titled 'interesting problems' full of just this sort of material (about half I've obtained from PF)
  20. Dec 9, 2016 #19
    Teachers doing plug and chug are doing it wrong, and you were in error to assume I was advocating anything of this sort.

    I reject the notion of a dichotomy between conceptual physics (with a minimum of quantitative problem solving) and plug and chug (as the only way to include problem solving). I call that "formula roulette."

    The problem solving method my colleagues and I teach rejects the approach of starting every problem with "what formula do I need?" We insist students begin by identifying and writing down the general principle(s) of physics in view and needed to solve the problem. The problem solving approach also insists that students draw a representative diagram and identify the important quantities and physical geometry and considerations. Then students need to make a step-by-step written plan for solving the problem. Equations are not in play until after they have a plan of attack. Execution of the plan often involves writing down formulas, solving symbolically, and then substituting in the quantities (numbers AND units) and evaluating (numbers AND units). Finally, an assessment is required on whether the answer made sense and its likelihood of being correct and why.

    My favorite grading rubric only gives about 20% of the points for a problem to a correct numerical answer. For a 25 point problem, points would be distributed as follows: 5 points for correct general principle, 5 points for diagram, 5 points for plan, 5 points for evaluating correctly (numerical answer and units), 5 points for assessment.

    Students who learn intro physics like this both master the essential concepts in physics as well as quantitative problem solving. The light goes on for them regarding "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in The Natural Sciences." The quantitative problem solving skills carry over into many other areas. "Conceptual Physics" is an oxymoron. Physics does not exist apart from the ability to make quantitative predictions and measurements. Once students have the algebra skills to handle it, teaching them that Physics is only qualitative and conceptual is dishonest.
  21. Dec 10, 2016 #20
    There is an article in this month's issue of The Physics Teacher titled "100 Years of Attempts to Transform Physics Education" that I think is a worthwhile read. It addresses the historical development three main questions in physics education: Why and how should physics be taught? What physics should be taught? and To whom should physics be taught?

    I am in a similar situation (and have been for seven years) in that I have a great deal of freedom for what content I can teach for both introductory and second year physics courses (high school level - typically grades 10 through 12). Initially my sequence of topics followed –more or less– the sequence presented in most introductory physics textbooks, but I decided to overhaul everything a couple of years ago because, even though I was preparing students well for learning physics content (based on feedback from alums going into science or engineering), I was dissatisfied overall with their abilities to think critically and their understanding of science as a way of thinking. I now consider my objective to help students learn how to learn and think (or at least think scientifically) using physics content as the vehicle to do so.

    You asked about topics that should be implemented in a general physics course and I would argue that the most important 'topics' for such a course are so-called 'transferrable skills' which include things like critical thinking and other cross-curricular skills that I felt were lacking from my approach to the traditional introductory physics sequence. I just came across a http://www.greatschoolspartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/EDU-PBGR_TransferableSkills-1.pdf [Broken] this past week that was put out by the state of Vermont which outlines such a set of five such skills with many examples of indicators for each. Many states in the northeast are now mandating that high schools re-orient their graduation requirements to assess such skills. So, my two cents: these skills (or a similar set) should be the focus of your course and that the content you choose as the vehicle for their assessment is unimportant provided you – and hopefully the students – are enthusiastic about it.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
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