Thursday, July 03, 2014

Why She Won't Be Studying Physics At The A-Level

This is an essay by a very articulate young lady in the UK (assuming that what was written is true) on why she won't continue to study physics for her A-Level exams.. While it may be towards the UK educational system, I can't help thinking that this is more common than we think.

To me, GCSE physics seemed out of touch compared with the stem cells and glucoregulation we were studying in biology. I could see the practical reasons for studying biology, but I found physics hard to relate to my everyday life.

All too often, the link from theory to human application was missing from the physics syllabus, making me wonder when I would ever need to calculate the half-life of a radioactive sample or describe the retrograde motion of Mars outside of the exam hall.

When I used to teach intro physics, at almost every new topics that we were about to start, I spend a few minutes just giving the students an overall picture of what it is, what we will be doing, where such knowledge is applied, and why we are going to study it. It isn't very long, but I know a few students had commented that they like being given the "big picture" and were able to know how things fit in. As physicists, and educators, we often  forget that students do not usually get the big picture, and that it is difficult for them to see how trying to find the electric field inside a conducting sphere would matter, or finding the exact angle of a projectile to hit a monkey when it jumped off a tree. We should spend some time explaining and justifying to the students why they are being made to learn these things, and what are the potential benefits of doing such exercises. It may not always get them to enjoy doing it, but at the very least, they understand that we do not ask them to do this for no rational reason.

Teaching someone to use a screw driver, or a drill, without telling that person what that screw driver and that drill can be used for, or that the skill in being able to efficiently used a screw driver and a drill might be of some benefit, will diminish the interest in learning how to use those tools. And obviously, in this case, it might even turn some student off from learning it entirely. I just wish that this student would have opened more advanced text in physics where many relevant applications and connections have been made to real-world issues. Even the infamous Halliday/Resnick text now devotes ample space to such description. And certain, Muller's text "Physics for Future Presidents" amplifies the importance of having a population that is knowledgeable in basic physics and can make analytical decisions on many important issues.

There are things we can do, as educators, to rectify the problem stated in this article. We do not have to wait for some school board, or examination board, to wake up and realize the shortcoming of the education system.


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