Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Change In How Physics Is Taught

This is a fascinating NY Times article on the revolutionary changes that's taking place in many universities in the US on how Intro Physics courses are taught. A specific example was taken from the intro physics class at MIT.

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.


And I think there is an important point being made in the article, and that there's a difference between how things can be taught to physics majors who have the natural interest and inclination towards the subject, and to non-physics majors, especially non-science majors, who will get bored very quickly if things don't make any sense or presented in a dry manner.

The traditional 50-minute lecture was geared more toward physics majors, said Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard who is a pioneer of the new approach, and whose work has influenced the change at M.I.T.

“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.

“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.”


This is very true, and for most schools that cater to non-physics students taking physics classes, how the material is presented needs to be thought through very carefully. One has the risk of turning people off from the subject matter and lose the opportunity to make them not only aware of how science is done, but also to appreciate the importance of physics.

When I was trying to think through my self-project on the revamping the undergraduate intro physics lab, my sole focus was more on the non-physics majors students. How do I get them to engage they way they have already understood on what is valid and what isn't, and get them to apply that knowledge to a more controlled situation where they have to now make a conscious effort to "play" and figure out how they can understand something as much as possible. This, essentially, is what science is. Their awareness on how we arrive at the relationship between two properties of something is one of the most important realization and skill that one can have. If that's something they can get out of such exercises, then we have done our job.

Zz.

1 comment:

Matt said...

“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.

So it serves the majority, but what about the people who would actually have made most use of physics classes? For example, the UK is dumbing down physics as fast as it possibly can, in order to make it appeal to the -ology students and the high-school drop-outs-to-be, but at the same time making the subject material so frustratingly boring and pointless that those students who might have actually gone to study physics at University (etc...) are bored to tears and turned off the subject anyway...