Reflecting on an observation of 2nd and 3rd year life-science students’ definitions of scientific models

This semester, Physics 131 is back to a 75-mintue twice-a-week schedule after some the return to in-person learning necessitated experimentation with 50-minute thrice-a-week versions, and we have confirmed what was stated in Michaelsen et al’s book on Team Based Learning: longer course sessions are vastly superior in this mode. Students have more time to explore more problems without interruption. This was manifest yesterday when I had more time to let students explore the definition of a scientific model, the results of which yielded some interesting insights.

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An Important Paper on Math-As-Language

Redish, Edward F., and Eric Kuo. “Language of Physics, Language of Math: Disciplinary Culture and Dynamic Epistemology.” Science & Education 24, no. 5 (July 1, 2015): 561–90.

I recently finished this paper on the differences in the use of mathematics between physics and mathematics as viewed from a linguistics/semantics standpoint and it was quite informative. Often folks discussing undergraduate curricula (including here at UMass Amherst) speak of the need to simply require physics majors to take more math courses. This paper provides an interesting counter perspective. This paper may also be an interesting addition to P691G.

I also think that this paper, along with several of the references therein that I would like to read, has further reinforced my idea that the prep for 131 should be reconsidered. I really think that it should be, to quote the paper, “without the equations.” I will, of course, keep the mathematical reviews as needed because we will do math but a strong conceptual stance in preparation is the way to go. In class, we can then focus on the translation to mathematics as an explicit skill.

Yesterday, I met with Theresa Austin, of the College of Education’s Language Literacy, and Culture program, and Adena Calden of the Department of Mathematics, about this issue. The goal being to determine what insights from the teaching of English to ESL students could perhaps be employed to teach my students their second language of mathematics. The conversation was productive. In particular, she provided an excellent procedure for the in-class translation exercise:

  1. Let students try to translate the physical concept themselves into mathematical language.
  2. Allow them to collaborate as a team to form a communal definition.
  3. Have each team write their definitions on the whiteboards.
  4. Do a gallery walk activity involving critique and voting for the best one.

For step 4, I will need to think more about how to facilitate constructive criticism. Perhaps Chris Ertl, who has done some neat work on poster sessions for the labs, can provide some good suggestions.

Adding Biological and Chemical Authenticity to the 131 Textbook

Another year has past and with it a lot of changes to my 131 efforts. This year has represented the first time I have taught P131 since Spring 2017 and coming back at it with fresh eyes has been very illuminating. There will probably be a lot of discussion on what I did this past year and how it can inform where I am going in the next iterations during the 2023-2024 school year.

One thing, which has become apparent as I publish my 132 Textbook: What is an Electron? What is Light? to the Living Physics Portal has been the inclusion of sections from OpenStax Biology, OpenStax Chemistry – Atoms First 2e, and the occasional selection from some of my peers in the disciplines here at UMass Amherst into that text. These sections are, almost by definition, authentic representations of the language and modes of thinking which characterize these disciplines. Including them in the physics text serves a two main purposes:

  1. Such sections help ensure that students see the physics material as connected to their majors’ courses. After all, right there, in the text, is some information straight out of a biology or chemistry class.
  2. Such sections also provide an equity role: not all students in 131/132 have the same major background; some students may have not been required to take certain classes for example while others may, due to the differences in the semesters in which different majors take physics, have taken these courses several years ago. By including them in the text, I am making sure that the needed biology or chemistry information is fresh in each person’s mind.

As I said, such sections are already exist in the 132 textbook, and submitting it for review has re-impressed on me the importance of such materials. Also important are homework questions that test the material. I remember as a student skipping these introductory/motivational chapters in my intro texts (Young and Freedman’s Sears and Zemansky’s University Physics with Modern Physics 13th ed.). Simple economic factors were at play: I had a limited amount of time and the material in these sections was never assessed in any way. Thus, I skipped them. Recalling this economic thinking shows the importance of having homework assessment of the material.

So, what am I thinking with regards to such biology/chemistry sections? Which should I perhaps include? Well, I am sure that this list will change as I go this summer developing the materials for fall, but a few already come to mind:

  • Entropy – Some discussion on the importance of entropy to biology and chemistry? Perhaps more on the Gibbs Free Energy? Also some comments about some of the examples we work such as the alignment of cytoskeletal fibers in cell division?
  • Energy – Some overview of the ideas of energy from a biology text?
  • The ATP reaction – I use this a lot in my discussion of microscopic energy and during the past semester a few students’ comments demonstrated that a review of this material would probably be beneficial.
  • Some discussion on ground reaction forces for when we get to simulations etc from a kinesiology resource? A discussion of force plates could also be good.

Just a few thoughts I figured I would get down.

Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part III – Added this semester: A problem solving “process”

Another addition this semester was a “problem solving process.” While most physics textbooks include problems solving processes, I have a fundamental disagreement with the philosophical underpinnings implied by these published sequences. Many of these processes implicitly suggest that students should be able to look at a problem and see all the steps before beginning work; that they should be able to “outline a solution” before even beginning the math. In my experience, this is not how physicists solve problems. Frankly, a situation is not really a problem if you know all the steps upon setting out. I want students to learn to sit with the discomfort of not knowing all of the steps at the outset and to develop the confidence needed to figure out problems as they go.

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Reflections on Physics 132 Spring ’22 Part II – Something that has been evolving for a few semesters: After-class broadcasts

One of the biggest challenges in any course is managing the limited time available. The UMass semester is configured so that there are always 13 Mondays, 13 Tuesdays, 13 Wednesdays, etc. For a course that meets MWF, this schedule means there are 36 class sessions of 50min each. This is a really short amount of time to cover optics, electricity, magnetism, and modern physics as prescribed by the Physics 132 official course description. One way to save a little time each day, while simultaneously making the course more equitable is through the use of daily “broadcasts.” These emails, which I have been sending after each class since the start of the pandemic, contain both a summary of the day’s material and any announcements. After five-semesters of refinement, I feel I have a sense of the key features.

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