Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mile Wide and Inch Deep

Lately, I've been working on a computer simulation of a vehicle. Because I haven't had a whole lot of direct guidance on the project, I've been sort of making up stuff as I go. I read a bit, and then I try to translate that into my program.

It occured to me yesterday, that there's nothing in my program that is beyond intro physics. I have forces. I find the sum of the forces. I have torques (moments in engineering speak). I find the sum of the torques. I have a time step, and I convert any non-zero sums into accelerations, velocities, and distances. But the cool thing is that I get to think about lifts, drags, and control surfaces.

Now, I've been in this game for a bit, so I chalk up a few experience points for me allowing myself to more easily see the big picture of what I'm trying to build than a first year undergrad would. However, I don't think that I absolutely needed to go through more than a decade of other stuff to get here. Which is why I have such a problem with the typical physics curriculum.

For what reason in god's green Earth do we cover as much as we do in intro physics? Let's just take all the minutae, all the tedious problem sets and labs and throw them out the window. Let's start on the first day, and say, "Ok, if you're traveling at constant velocity, the sum of all forces is zero. Oh, and by the way, the sum of all the energy you use has to be a constant. Now, let's get to work on some interesting projects." And then go to it. Let's teach creativity, let's teach resourcefullness, and let's teach project management. That's what life's about, not whether you can answer a dumb GRE question about a block on a plane (I think I'll have to write about my thoughts on that tomorrow). Of course, that would take several orders of magnitude better teaching, but it would be worth it to have a populace that actually understood physics.

3 Comments:

At 1:20 PM, Blogger maki-girl said...

That's a really good point hoagieboy. Now to be your devil's advocate for a moment. If you say, on the first day of class ... "Ok, if you're traveling at constant velocity, the sum of all forces is zero. Oh, and by the way, the sum of all the energy you use has to be a constant. Now, let's get to work on some interesting projects." ... what happens if they don't understand (yet) what velocity is, or what a vector is, or how to add vectors, or what a force is, or how to sum forces, or what energy is ... never mind accelerations and torques.

I am with you, but for now I work in smaller steps. I am trying to strike a workable balance between not making up fake problems (pretend there's no friction!), but not introducing so many different forces all at once that my students get confused.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

Well, yes, I think that it would be a bit much to only say what I suggested on the first day. There is a place to talk abstractly about vectors and such. However, in the vast majority of classes, those discussions only lead to student misunderstanding anyway. Rarely does the PER report that a class average scores 100% on the FCI. So, as Dr. Phil likes to say, 'how's that workin' for you lately?'

I understand the point of taking smaller steps. You're only one piece of sushi in a big hamburger dominated world. But, I think that the 'ideal' class would be one where students engage real science/engineering problems on their own terms without waiting around for all this background information to fill in, when it's not anyway.

 
At 2:34 PM, Blogger maki-girl said...

Well, I won't argue that traditional physics is working for more than 10% of a typical introductory physics class.

Somehow I need to convince my students they don't need to wait to be told something, that they CAN figure it out on their own. But that's the exact opposite of their high school experience (for most of them) and a lot of their college experience. As I just said, we have a long way to go. But at least we're going!

 

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