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30 January 2017

The Physics Community - remarks from the USAYPT President.

We just finished the 2017 US Invitational Young Physicists Tournament at the University of the Sciences, Philadelphia.  Please congratulate Rye Country Day School of Rye, New York for their victory.  I'll post full tournament results in a few days.

Below is my brief, slightly edited, address to the assembled throngs tournament's closing ceremonies.  The audience consisted primarily of high school student participants.  

I need to make sure you all know where I stand, though it's not like you probably don't know already. 

I believe in physics fights.  I believe in this tournament.  I believe in having us all together every year, where we compete with each other; but where we are also colleagues. Where we award a trophy, but where we also talk to one another as physicists.  Where we have people from seven different American states, and two different other countries. (Five of our schools are from the same country - China - but they are from all over China, just like the American schools are from all over the USA.)  Folks, we have people from all over the world, of diverse backgrounds, all speaking the common language of physics.  That, above all, is what the USIYPT is about.

I cannot countermand executive orders.  I can not make laws in the United States.  I have no influence there.  And it's just as well that I have no influence there.  I am not a politician.

Where I do have influence, though: I can help all these folks get together to speak the common language of physics to each other in person, to build relationships... such that in ten or twenty years, when YOUR generation is in charge of this country or your respective countries, you will know good people in America.  You will know good people in China.  You will know good people in Tunisia.  You will have the relationships and the background -- both a scientific background and a cultural background -- such that you can make different decisions. 

And I hope that by then the world will be a better place, due in very small part to our efforts.  


16 January 2017

Mail Time: Rigorous definitions of circuit properties in AP Physics 1

Buckeye native Matthew writes in with a question about circuits in AP Physics 1.  He’s referring to my summary post of the topics on the exam

Greg - Happy New Year!. As I am outlining the second semester of the year I am having difficulty finding information about

Non-rigorous definitions of voltage, current, resistance
Rigorous definitions of voltage, current, resistance

Any information you could provide me about finding the differences between non-rigorous or rigorous would be appreciated. 

I am thinking (hoping) that I already address this and just have not been exposed to the terms non-rigorous and rigorous when it comes to the definitions?!?!

Matthew, great timing -- I just worked on this difference with my AP class last week.  

"Rigorous" and "non-rigorous" definitions are my own personal terms, not anything to do with materials published by the College Board.

I start circuits on the very first day with the non-rigorous definitions:

Non-rigorous definitions of voltage, current, resistance
Voltage is provided by a battery.  Voltage is measured in units of volts.
Resistance is provided by a resistor, a lamp, or any electronic device.  The units of resistance are ohms (W).
Current relates to the amount of charge flowing through a resistor.  The units of current are amps.
Ohm’s law states that voltage is equal to current multiplied by resistance:  V = IR.

With just these facts, I can have students graph current and voltage to verify or discover the relationships in ohm's law; I can have students measure brightness of a bulb as a function of voltage and resistance to discover the power equation. And then we can do basic semi-quantitative questions with single resistor circuits, like "I replace a 10 ohm resistor with a 20 ohm resistor, by what factor has the current in the circuit changed?"  

Then we move on to circuits with series and parallel resistors, then to combinations of resistors, then to light bulbs, then to circuits with switches, using ammeters and voltmeters. I like to give circuit TIPERs, but make the students set up the situations experimentally to verify their prediction.

During these first couple of weeks, I never mention Kirchoff's laws -- rather, we have rules about current and voltage for parallel and series resistors which are a poor person's statement of Kirchoff.  (“Voltage across series resistors is different for each, but adds to the total.”)

Finally, once we've done all of this... everyone has a personal, intuitive understanding of what current and voltage are.  That understanding has been built on experience through problem solving, lab work, right and wrong answers.*  In eduspeak, this personal, intuitive understanding is referred to as an "operational definition."

*Never through analogy, though.  If students create their own analogies, great.  But direct experience without analogy has proven far more effective at building knowledge and avoiding misconceptions than any analogy I've ever tried.  Voltage and current aren't truly LIKE anything else.  

So, with that personal understanding built, it's time to introduce the rigorous definitions:

Rigorous definitions of voltage, current, resistance
Voltage is energy per charge.
Current is charge per time.
Power is energy per time.
Potential difference is a synonym for voltage.

Remember, your students aren't likely to come into the course with an operational definition of charge; and gaining the experience necessary to develop what charge truly means requires, I think, a full-on AP Physics 2/C treatment.  And "energy" is still a bit fuzzy in students' minds.  (These rigorous definitions can actually help students develop their operational definition of energy and charge, since they're so solid on voltage and current.)

I therefore tell the students to translate from rigorous language into our non-rigorous definitions.  When they see a problem like "rank these bulbs based on how much energy is gained by an electron passing through" they recognize that as asking about energy per charge; that just means "rank by voltage," which my class is well trained to do.

The last bit about circuits we do is to use Kirchoff's laws, and to make voltage vs. position-in-circuit graphs.  Here I use the terms "electric potential" and "electric potential difference" with impunity.  But by this time voltage is such an ingrained concept that the class has little difficulty anymore.

08 January 2017

What advice can I give a student with a C right now?

This showed up in the comment section from my August 2016 post in which I write a letter to my upcoming AP class.  It deserves a response in a full post, because I suspect that many physics teachers are confronting just this kind of problem this time of year.

A very concerned mother here. My very strong student pulled her first C in her life in the first semester of physics. We have tutors, spoken multiple times to the teacher and everyone says that she understands the materials, and almost always does badly on the test. When asked, she says that the test is so different she does not know what to do. As an engineer who had taken high levels of physics, I am really at a lost to help her. As an experienced teacher what advice can you give her. We need to make the next upcoming semester rock! Appreciate your kind assistance.

Now, remember that I have no direct contact with this specific student, so I can't give anything more than general advice. That said, I've seen this pattern many times -- historically outstanding student who gets As in history and biology, diligent, willing to work hard with support at home from subject matter experts... yet does not perform on physics tests.

The general advice starts with recognizing that there is no magic bullet. Neither this student's parents, her tutors, her teacher, or I can instantly create success. Physics skills are learned gradually, over time. They come quicker for some than for others.

That said: It's very, very hard for me to train even good physics teachers to back off and make students struggle without giving away answers. Students (and parents!) with good intentions often treat homework as a "just get the answer" exercise without engaging in the process.  Thus, in so many cases as you describe, the student's extensive support network is HURTING rather than helping. When tutors and expert parents get involved, students tend to ignore the part about "here's how to approach the problem" and think instead "thank goodness, I got the answer" -- no matter how good the tutoring might be.

So my fundamental advice is to let your daughter struggle. Give her loving emotional support, just as you would if she were on a softball team and kept striking out. When she asks questions, don't solve problems with her, don't help her figure out mistakes.  It's her homework, let her do it. Instead, advise her to think all the time about the process of getting answers, the general approach to different kinds of problems, even if she doesn't get the exact right answers. Help her keep focus on the big picture of all the things she's done well -- both in and out of physics class -- and don't engage with Chicken Little talk.

It's very likely that, by year's end, she'll start making connections and improve dramatically. I've had a number of students making Cs this time of year who ended up with 4s and 5s on the AP exam. Things often click after long-term exposure to physics.

It's also possible that she pulls a C for the year. That's okay, too. I have struck out every at-bat for four games in a row; I've earned Cs on tests and in classes. Those strikeouts and Cs no more define me than they should define your daughter.