Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Physics And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

OK, so I was trying to be cute with the title. Still, that would make for a great book, don't you think?

This physics education paper looks at how to illustrate basic kinematics using vehicular motion, which is a very common example in intro physics classes.

Abstract: A priority of physics instruction is to help students make the connection between the formulae they think they are required to memorize and the real world in which they interact every day. If you ask students to describe a situation in real life involving physical principles, the most commonly cited examples will pertain to vehicular motion. One situation in real life involving physical principles is vehicle dynamics. Even students who have little interest in physics eagerly discuss problems like how much a car can decelerate travelling in a flat turn or how tricks like the Wheely can be performed on a motorcycle. In the physics classroom, the motion of automotive vehicles is probably the most interesting manifestation of the principles of physics. The laws of physics limiting movements of vehicles are deduced here in a simple derivation suited for classroom demonstration as well as for homework. Due to limits on frictional forces there are subsequent limits for acceleration, deceleration and speed in a flat turn. Frictional forces also determine the behaviour of a vehicle at rapid speed in a turn. 

While it is certainly true that many students can and do know about cars, I hate to think that this is another one of those examples where we unconsciously are using illustrations that have an implicit bias towards boys. Boys tends to like and understand cars. Girls typically don't. While the basic physics here can be understood by both genders, the point here is not the teaching of basic physics, but the raising of interest in the illustration of basic physics. The authors explicitly wanted the subject matter to be appealing by choosing something he thought students would have a keen interest in. The girls that I frequently encounter don't typically find cars that interesting, certainly not to the same level as boys find cars to be.

It is certainly true that it could be very difficult to find an example that doesn't appeal more to one gender versus another. However, so far, many of the examples tend to appeal to just one gender. Examples using canons, cars, etc. tend to favor the typical interests of boys. Where are the examples that girls are more familiar with to give some balance?

Of course, a potential issue with my bringing all of this up is that I could easily be making a stereotypical characterization of boys and girls. Girls may find that associating them with 'girlie' stuff in physics classes may be insulting to them. So trying to be fair to both gender could easily backfire. That is why we tend to stick to the standard examples that we've been using all these years.

And if you think that I've been flip-floping back and forth in this blog entry, you're absolutely correct!


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