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Focus on Physics

March 2017, Building an Understanding of Physical Principles Paul G. Hewitt

Teaching Physics as the Rules of Nature

We all know that to enjoy a game, you how everything in nature is beautifully Mathematical need not mean
must know the rules of the game. Like- interconnected. Physics taught as the computational
wise, to appreciate—and even compre- rules of nature can be among the most Physics has the reputation of being
hend—your environment, you must relevant courses in any school, as edu- overly mathematical, intimidating
understand the rules of nature. Physics cationally mainstream as English and many students who are otherwise at-
is the study of these rules, which show history. tracted to science. My teaching experi-
ence tells me that it’s not mathematics
per se but rather computation that in-
FI G U R E 1 timidates students. That’s an impor-
The laws of nature are expressed in equations, behind each of which are tant distinction. Every serious physics
fascinating stories. course is mathematical, containing
equations. But it also can be noncom-
putational. By postponing problem
solving until a follow-up course, an in-
troductory, noncomputational physics
course can be enjoyed by math whizzes
and math weaklings alike.

Equations guide thinking

The laws of physics are central to any
physics course and are expressed unam-
biguously in equation form (Figure 1).
Although equations have traditionally
been used as recipes for problem solv-
ing, they provide deeper insight when
used as guides to thinking. A physics
FI G U R E 2 student can learn to “read” equations
as a music student reads notes on a mu-
Just as the ratio C/D is the same for all circles, the ratio F/m is the same sical score.
for all objects in free fall. Rather than writing Newton’s sec-
ond law as F = ma (force equals mass
times acceleration), I strongly suggest
a = F/m, which is more like New-
ton expressed it. Then a student can
see why a boulder and feather falling
without air resistance (free fall) have
equal accelerations (Figure 2).
Any topic is better learned when
related to what students already know.
Students know the relationship be-
tween a circle’s diameter and circum-
ference: C = πD. In ratio form, they see
that whatever the size of a circle, the
ratio C/D remains constant: π. Similar-
ly, the ratio of gravitational force F to

14 The Science Teacher

mass m for freely falling objects yields Exaggerating symbol sizes cannon recoil. Although the two forc-
the constant g, the acceleration due to The relationship between terms in an es are equal in strength, the resulting
gravity. equation can be illustrated by chang- accelerations are enormously differ-
ing the sizes of the symbols. For exam- ent. Tweaking the symbols in New-
Concepts before computation ple, when a cannon is fired, the force ton’s second law illustrates and pro-
When a teacher spends mere seconds acting on the cannonball has the same vides the explanation (Figure 3). Note
on the concepts in an equation and magnitude as the force that makes the the relative sizes of the m’s and a’s.
many minutes on number crunching,
students get the impression that phys-
ics is all about computation. Instead, F IG U R E 3
focus on the concepts in equations
and how they connect, with much less The differences in acceleration are due to the different masses.
number crunching. Concepts first,
computation second. Time normally
spent on problem solving can be bet-
ter allocated to an overview of physics.
Then all students can enjoy what many
of us already know: that physics can be
a student’s most delightful course.

Examine the whole elephant

before measuring its tail
A physics course can concentrate on
a few topics in detail or many topics
more generally. I prefer the latter—to
study mechanics, properties of mat-
ter, heat, waves, light, radioactivity,
nuclear fission and fusion, with some F IG U R E 4
time devoted to Einstein’s relativity. A As fuel is burned to provide thrust, mass decreases and acceleration
broad overview of physics is valuable increases.
to students who continue with physics
and also to those who don’t.

The black hole of physics

instruction: kinematics
To cover a wide range of physics I rec-
ommend just skimming through kine-
matics—the study of motion without
regard to forces. Kinematics can swal-
low more class time than any other
topic, because it’s a dandy introduction
to numerical problem solving. A main
reason for limiting time spent on ki-
nematics is that it addresses no laws of
physics. None.

March 2017 15
Focus on Physics

Equations identify and crutch. Equations identify the concepts crease? The equation for Newton’s
connect concepts involved. For example: We know that second law guides our answer by re-
Some teachers complain when stu- a rocket fired in deep space gains speed minding us that acceleration depends
dents presented with a problem grasp as long as the thrusting force is main- not only on applied force but also on
for an equation. I don’t. I encourage tained. Question: For a constant thrust, mass. Aha! As fuel is burned, the mass
it! Hooray for equations serving as a will the rocket’s acceleration also in- m of the rocket decreases. Hence the
acceleration as well as the speed of the
rocket increase (Figure 4, p. 15). The
FI G U R E 5
equation nicely guides this discussion.
Although the velocity of Hudson varies as he is tossed upward, his
acceleration is a constant g. Distinguishing between closely
related concepts
Equations help to differentiate closely
related concepts such as velocity and
acceleration, which are commonly
confused. Well-chosen examples help
point out the differences between the
two. My favorite is asking for the accel-
eration of a vertically tossed object at
the top of its path, such as little Hudson
tossed upward by his dad (Figure 5).
Students will likely say the accelera-
tion of Hudson at the top of his path
is zero. This answer is wrong because
velocity (which is zero there) is con-
fused with acceleration. The equation
FI G U R E 6 a = F/m guides thinking to the correct
answer, g. Barring air drag, the accel-
The impulse-momentum equation tells us that the magnitude of force in
eration of any projectile is everywhere
a collision greatly depends on the time during which the change occurs.
g, whether moving upward, momen-
tarily at rest at the top of its path, or
moving downward.
Newton’s second law involves
thinking of three concepts at once: ac-
celeration, force, and mass. A lot of us,
me included, have difficulty thinking
of two ideas at once. But three ideas?
Even Galileo didn’t get around to that!
So we have to be patient with students
who don’t comprehend these connec-
tions and distinctions right away.

Momentum and energy

Exaggerated symbols help explain
differing magnitudes of concepts in

16 The Science Teacher

various circumstances. For instance, are threatened by math and by others dents who, like them, enjoy problem
symbol sizes nicely illustrate how the who view it as a “killer course” that solving. These courses should remain,
amount of force varies during the will lower their GPAs. Some teach- for they provide the vital foundation
changes in momentum of colliding ers are quite content with their small for future engineers and scientists.
objects (Figure 6) and with changes in classes of mathematically talented stu- But we shouldn’t shut out the
energy (Figure 7).

Beyond mechanics F IG U R E 7
Given a choice, would students want Energy conservation tells us that a small force can ideally lift a huge
to spend time on kinematics prob- weight.
lems or learn why radiation from
their smart phones can’t damage hu-
man cells? Radiation energy comes
in packets, or photons. The photon
energy is related to the radiation fre-
quency by E = hf, where h is Planck’s
constant. It’s easy to see that radiation
at low frequencies means low energy
of each photon (Figure 8). A bit of
number checking will show photon
energies much too low to disrupt cells
in the human body.

We can’t change only

one thing
The value of equations isn’t limited
to the physics classroom. Equations in F IG U R E 8
general remind us that we can never
change only one thing: Change the The low radiation frequency of smart phones means correspondingly low
value of a term on one side of an equa- energy for each photon of radiation.
tion, and you correspondingly change
the other side. Whenever you change
one thing, something else is also
changed. Not being able to change
only one thing extends way beyond
physics, especially to ecology and to
situations that are social and even per-

Physics in the educational

There are many reasons why phys-
ics courses aren’t as common as Eng-
lish and history in secondary schools.
Physics is avoided by students who

March 2017 17
Focus on Physics

many nonmathematical students who approach isn’t just good for individu- On the web
A video with more on equations as the
see science as “cool” and would love als—it’s good for the country. Basic rules of nature and as guides to thinking,
to learn physics “without numbers.” science knowledge enables people to “Hewitt-Drew-it! Physics for Teachers 1,”
They would welcome a noncompu- understand critical issues such as cli- is at http://bit.ly/TST-physics.
tational course that emphasizes con- mate change.
cepts over mathematical skills. To When a learner’s first course in Paul G. Hewitt (pghewitt@aol.com) is the
bring more of the general public into physics is a delightful experience, the author of the popular textbook Con-
science, a noncomputational survey rigor of a second course will be wel- ceptual Physics, 12th edition, and coau-
thor with his daughter Leslie Hewitt and
physics course can precede the higher comed. And in your teaching of phys-
nephew John Suchocki of Conceptual
level physics courses and have a place ics, it’s fun and rewarding to get to Physical Science, 6th edition, both pub-
in the educational mainstream. This photons and rainbows. lished by Pearson Education.

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18 The Science Teacher

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