Newsletter #9     Physics courses

Thursday's Brown Bag really hit the jackpot. (Don't think too hard about that metaphor!) Jerry Miller came over from Physics, bringing along a batch of people involved with him in the teaching of introductory level Physics. The Math department turned out in force to welcome them (as anyone who tried to pick up their mail during the hour will attest.) And we learned LOTS.

For a start, we found out the structure of the course: students enrolled in it must simultaneously sign up for three hours of lecture, three hours of lab and a one hour tutorial session. For each of the course's three midterms, two questions are supplied by the lecturer, one by the lab instructor and one by the tutorial instructor (what clearer way to convey to the students the importance of all three?) Add to this the existence of three different lecture sections and you have some heavy-duty coordination requirements--which don't seem to faze them particularly.

Of the three parts of the course, the one from which it seemed most clear that we could benefit by a spot of modified plagiarism is the tutorial. The structure is just the sort we've been discussing a lot, both in and out of Brown Bags--students in groups of four work together on carefully sculpted worksheets, each directed toward clearing up some concept which is known to be a common pitfall. The worksheets themselves were designed by Lillian McDermott and her colleagues in her Physics Education program, which makes it unsurprising that they are a highly successful collection. (I think I will be able to put a copy of the whole set in the Math lounge in the course of next week.)

It was already sounding great before Jerry pulled out his first worksheet, which addressed the difficulties students have with the different impact of a function's being equal to zero and its derivative's being equal to zero. Nearly palpable waves of "Oh--yeah!!" went round the room!

Less applicable, but nonetheless fun to find out, were a few tidbits about the lab. To me it was summed up by the fact that they have (and use) plenty of high-tech stuff, but do not turn up their noses at experiments involving a peanut butter jar, a coat hanger, a couple of strips of aluminum foil and a balloon. That one I want to try!

The rest of the information exchange was more two-way. Jerry sketched the order of material in the first two or three quarters, and with it the timing of the need for particular mathematical tools. That got a little discouraging in spots, because there are a number that we simply can't get to without having our curriculum come completely unglued. On the other hand, it is presumably better for the Physics faculty to know they are dealing with material that hasn't been covered than to think that we have covered the material without leaving any trace on the student's minds! Furthermore, it ought to help us with motivation if we know at what point we are providing the theory behind a tool of which some, at least, of our students are already aware of the use...oughtn't it?

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