Earlier today, I tweeted the following:
It lead to a great conversation with some physics educators whose opinions I really value. However, some of the conversation, though useful, wasn’t getting at my, admittedly-poorly-articulated, point. I thought I’d use this post to try to flesh out my point further.
Before I really embraced the concept of being a physics educator, I was immersed in physics as a discipline. This was in both graduate school and as a post-doctoral researcher. I was doing cutting edge research, and really trying to wrap my brain around some very difficult ideas, split between theoretical and practical/engineering problems. Back then I went to conferences like crazy, and interacted with lots and lots of physicists. However, when I think back on it now, almost none of that work had to do with mechanics or kinematics.
Now that I’ve devoted my career to physics education, though not necessarily physics education research, I spend about 10% of my time thinking about and teaching mechanics, 75% of my time thinking about and teaching non-mechanics physics, and the rest doing weird projects with students. Note that I’m not considering other time spent on service issues here, which really takes up ~25% of my time.
As I’ve embraced using social media (this blog, twitter, Global Physics Department most notably), I’ve noticed that the time spent interacting with other people has taken a sharp turn towards mechanics/kinematics. I really value those conversations, and I feel that I learn a lot from them. This post is trying to wrap my brain about the implications of that sharp turn.
Why the change? I would say a lot of it has to do with the fact that I interact with a ton of high school teachers. Nearly all of the classes I teach cover material that’s never considered at the high school level, including AP courses. So when I interact with high school educators, we find that most of our common ground, from a concept perspective, is in mechanics. That’s not the whole story, though. A lot of the conversations I’m involved in also revolve around the Physics Education Research universe. This is a place that’s also nearly dominated by thoughts/ideas/solutions about how to teach mechanics.
Is this a problem? I don’t think so, but it’s clear to me that it’s been tickling my brain every once in a while. Here are some things that get me thinking in this direction:
- Solid research from PER about how to teach mechanics might not apply to advanced topics. One thing that really has me thinking about this is the notion of pre/mis/conceptions. These exist and are a powerful thing when working with students with mechanics. They seem to be much less powerful for advanced topics.
- Ask a random person what physics is and they’ll likely say something about mechanics (“carts on ramps”, “Newton’s laws”, etc). Ask a physicist and they’ll likely not mention mechanics (“A way to model natural phenomena”, “An approach to explain the universe”). My initial tweet about modeling above gets at this.
- I never used any of Newton’s laws during my graduate school research. I did ultrafast optics, and so maybe people would say that I spent more time with Maxwell.
- Books like “Matter and Interactions” and “Six Ideas that Shaped Physics” often face an uphill battle for adoption in departments that are more, shall we say, traditional.
I found I really was impressed with Frank and Kelly’s response to my tweets above:
They’re both saying that, at least for modeling, spending time on physics as both content (often mechanics in high school) and physics as process is important. I’m really excited to see how Frank’s experiment goes.
Ok, having read through this post, I still don’t feel I’m articulating my feelings about this quite right, but it’s gotten me further than I was. Please join the conversation either here or on twitter.