Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Busting Myths to Learn Physics

Now this is one interesting way to not only teach physics, but also get students to do experimental work!

An instructor in Hamline University in Minnesota is making his first year students to a Mythbuster-type experiments to either confirm or debunk popular myths. In the process, they not only learn about the physics involved, but also learn how to properly do experiments to get reliable answers.

Physics Prof. Andy Rundquist gets the students access to the building materials and ballfields they need to answer life's pressing questions: Will tin foil scramble a speed radar? Can you climb out of a sandpit after being buried to the neck? Will a frozen golf ball fly farther?

The myths must involve physics and no strange materials. "He put the kibosh on a bunch of ideas," reported Summer Haag, a first-year student from Rochester. For example, he nixed the question of whether a duck's quack would echo. "We weren't allowed to get a duck," she said.
This is a terrific idea, and certainly is a heck of a lot more interesting than simply repeating the same experiments year in, year out. I don't know whether it will fulfill the basic syllabus for an intro physics class. I certainly think that something similar to this can be incorporated even in a standard set of the  usual undergrad physics experiments now and then, to keep things interesting. I think any experiment in which the students have to design their own set of methods to solve a problem is extremely useful.


1 comment:

Andy Rundquist said...

This class is a first year seminar, not a algebra- or calc-based intro physics course. I modeled it after a similar course for non-majors at Wabash College. It is really fun to work with the students on how to design experiments to answer questions. I like how we have time to do two rounds of mythbusting. The first round has a long of fits and starts but I think they'll do much better in the second round (that starts next week).

As far as using this model in a normal physics course, I think it could probably work. I know that Carleton College (also in Minnesota) let's students in their intro courses design their own experiments to explore the topics our the course.

Thanks for the plug!

p.s. The students are still bugging me to get a duck.