Physics Is Amazing and Must Be Taught Better!

Physics Is Amazing and Must Be Taught Better!

Physics is the curiosity-driven study of the inanimate natural world at a very fundamental level that extends across all nature—from the extremes of empty space itself, time, light, energy, elementary particles, and atoms through many orders of magnitude to stars, galaxies, and the structure and fate of the universe. At all levels it shares the objective of a deep conceptual and mathematical understanding. Physics is widely appreciated for the beauty of its concepts, but it is valued for its immense range of predictive power and life-improving applications.

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People’s overall economic well-being is roughly measured by gross domestic product (GDP) per person. Amazingly, this index was essentially flat from Egyptian times up to the mid-18th century (Hansen and Prescott, 2002). Since then, GDP per person has increased 20-fold in the United States and other “first world” countries where circumstances allowed innovators to apply knowledge originating in various subfields of physics to societal problems. From this perspective one sees that successive revolutions in fundamental physics have been tightly interconnected with technological advances that have each substantially improved our lives:

•    Newtonian mechanics—Industrial revolution based on engineered machines;

•    Thermodynamics—Steam engines to power machines, railroads, steamboats;

•    Electricity and magnetism—Electrical power distribution system, motors, lights, telegraphs, electronics;

•    Quantum mechanics—Lasers, atomic clocks, chemistry;

•    Nuclear—Atomic energy, medical diagnosis and treatments;

•    Condensed matter physics—Transistors and integrated circuits, computers, fiber optics, materials  like liquid crystals (e.g., liquid-crystal displays), polymers, superconducting technology and materials;

•    Modern physics research—Mining large data sets, the World Wide Web.

This vast amount of understanding resulted from a new way of thinking about natural phenomena—the scientific method—in which hypotheses are expressed in a precise, generally mathematical, form that enables exact predictions; then testing these hypotheses and generally exploring nature with insightful and precise experiments; and then refining those hypotheses or, when merited, replacing them with new ones. Among the fruits of this process is the ability to make models of natural processes that predict the behavior of things in advance, e.g., the number of looms that can be powered by a particular waterfall, the effect of cross-connections on a polymer or a highway system, the takeoff speed of an airplane, and so on.

The beauty of this intellectual approach and its remarkable cornucopia of insights, knowledge, and applications has captured the imaginations of people for centuries and attracted them to study, research, and develop applications in physics.

Some undergraduates are attracted to take and major in physics by the beauty of its intellectual approach and finesse of the related experiments and apparatus. However, many more take physics as a required course in another major’s curriculum because of the foundational role it plays in developing an understanding for other branches of science and engineering. In fact, only slightly more than 1 percent of students who take an introductory physics course end up obtaining an undergraduate degree in physics.

Too often, introductory physics has been cast as a subject that only a tiny elite could truly master. As a result, many students have viewed it as too difficult or unpleasant, and so have chosen not to pursue physics and other STEM majors. This has detrimentally affected not only the health of undergraduate physics and other STEM programs, but also the intellectual health of the nation.

Currently undergraduate physics education is especially challenged by financial constraints and by limited success in appealing to many of the demographic groups that represent an increasing fraction of today’s incoming students and in providing enough physics teachers for high schools. Addressing these challenges requires that the physics community take a close look at the issues related to undergraduate physics education and pursue paths that can lead to improved student understanding of physics, reasoning skills, and attitudes toward physics. Recent developments in physics education research, computer-based instruction, and social networking can guide undergraduate physics education to more positive outcomes.

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