What do we know, want, and need

It’s syllabus writing time again for me, and so I’ll likely have a few posts this month with some cockamamie ideas. They’ll be crazier here at the beginning of the month, most likely. Today’s is just such an example of that.

I’m finding that I’m getting very jealous of my friends who teach physics in high school. I’m jealous of the latitude they sometimes seem to have with their curriculum and lesson planning. Don’t get me wrong. I cringe when I hear about state standards and standardized testing. But still, I delight in reading about awesome ideas they think they might try out tomorrow, next week, or next year. This post is an idea to be creative like so many of my friends in one of my courses this spring.

I’m teaching both Modern Physics and Theoretical Mechanics in the spring semester (which starts in a month). They differ in lots of ways, but for this post the important difference is that one is a required gateway course for all majors and minors and the other is an advanced elective. Any physics major anywhere has taken a course like our Modern Physics one, and that’s the one I’d like to kick some ideas around about in this post.

What do we know

Instead of running my students through one of the popular texts, I had already planned to use a free text (see my thoughts here). What I’d really like to do is get the students engaged on the first day with where they are in their physics education, and where they want and need to be by the end (of both this course and their education). I’d like to start with a mind mapping brainstorm, trying to organize their collective physics knowledge at the beginning of the semester. This (hopefully) will be most of “General Physics” but I’m hoping we can organically organize that material in ways that will help us organize our class.

What we want

I want the students to start with that bare bones mind map and decide if there are any gaps that they’d like filled, or maybe islands that need connection. For this and the need section, I’d like them to spend a few days (maybe just 1, who knows). I’d also like them to get a sense of any “modern physics” ideas that they’d like to know about, especially when they can see a connection to our existing map. I’m expecting some “relativity!” and “quantum!” statements, but I’m also wondering how I’ll deal with “dark energy!” statements. Not my hopeful use of exclamation points.

What we need

Of course, I’ll have to make sure that the map, which I intend to guide us for the semester, has destinations on it that my colleagues expect me to “cover” (sorry for all the air quotes). I’ll have to step in and make convincing cases for things like Compton Scatttering and, ugh, the Bohr model. I’m not really sure how to balance all that, but my hope is that I can get the students to own their learning in this class.

My guess is that this could really get me into some trouble, especially if I spend too much time on map building and not enough on covering things. But, I have to say, this sounds exciting to me, and different from how I usually do a course. I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you can’t articulate them well, here are a few suggestions you could amplify:

  • This is stupid. Modern physics texts have evolved to have just what you need. Open the book and forge ahead.
  • This is awesome. You should skip the need section because students should always choose what they’re going to learn about.
  • This is stupid because you’ll get bogged down telling them you don’t have time to do any cosmology.
  • This is awesome because you can do cosmology and say “stuff it” to your colleagues who disagree.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in physics, syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What do we know, want, and need

  1. It’s very gratifying, I think, it start with cockamamie ideas and then go from there!

    I love the idea you have of asking students what holes in their knowledge they want to fill in. After a solid year of intro physics, I think many students are left thinking, “well, that was great, but I won’t feel like a physicist until I can tell my friends about black holes, dark energy, relativity, etc.” So in some ways maybe your class can be a bit about helping physics to be in some ways what they thought it would be.

  2. Chris Stoker says:

    I like the idea. My experience has been that I usually end up with a compromise between my ideal vision for learning and what the real-life system I work in demands. I imagine you’ll end up with a mix of 1)what you’d like to do, 2)what the students are ready for/willing to do and 3)what the constraints of your colleagues are. And even if its not totally what you envision at least its a step in the right direction:)

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I think you’re right, Chris, and after stewing a little about this over the last couple days I’m still pretty excited about it!

  3. Maybe you should think about what standards you could use as axioms to get the type of results you want for the students to populate the standards list? You could make generalizing from a question to a standard an axiomatic standard of the class (which sounds like where you are going) and have them construct some standards from an given set of questions.

    For example, you could use a subset of expired questions from the Physics GRE ( http://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about/content/physics ) to help you get an idea of what your “need” standards might be. By using the ETS questions can insulate yourself from criticism that you might get from people worried about covering appropriate material. There are probably ~30 questions on the sample Physics GRE test which are “Modern Physics” so you will need other source material.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      That’s a really cool idea, and I was planning on making a strong connection with my standards with this approach.

  4. I think the map is an excellent idea. It reminds of some things I read about Denis Rancourt: http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/01/how-to-not-teach-physics/
    Rancourt has a lot to stay about these things, much of it activist based, but I think there is much to be said about provoking independent thought and intelligent discourse, using whatever means necessary.

  5. Pingback: Set the standard at the end | SuperFly Physics

  6. bretbenesh says:

    Do your students know enough of what they don’t know to fill in the gaps?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I’m not sure. I’m really hoping that when we do it on the first day, they’ll exhibit a little confidence AND a little embarrassment at their state of knowledge. Hopefully we can work together to figure out what are truly gaps and what aren’t.

  7. Pingback: Spring syllabi updates | SuperFly Physics

  8. Pingback: Good week | SuperFly Physics

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