Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Writing with numbers

Posted by Arjendu on December 13, 2007

I spent the morning at a ‘writing with numbers’ workshop internal to Carleton. One of the cool things about Carleton is the number of opportunities to expand your horizons on how to teach, and to think and reflect about how you might practice your own craft, research as well as teaching. It’s usually done in the company of friends far from your own field, so you have to dig deep to come up with good broad principles.

I signed up for the workshop because I wanted to be forced to think about what assignments I am going to give my students in my ‘Revolutions in Physics’ class, which is a broad survey for non-scientists where I try to convey the ideas behind the very quantitative way in which physicists model the material universe, and to show humanistic issues behind these ideas. That is, I ask students to think about the philosophical, sociological, and poetic impact of physics. And it would be nice to have more structured assignments than I presently have.

I also figured it wasn’t a bad time for a gentle refresher on the use of numbers and quantitative thinking in my own presentations on research. And any workshop of this sort has proved a good time to chat with colleagues and to get to know them, which I generally enjoy greatly. Having skipped workshops for a few years now, I figured it was time to do one more.

The specific issue: I have been frustrated by the disconnect — in all my introductory classes, not just this class — between how I see quantitative issues, and how students see them. I struggled to articulate it today: I see the universe as being described mathematically, but unlike my experimental colleagues, I don’t particularly care about numbers myself. I am far more interested in the story behind numbers, that is, the relationships between physically measurable quantities, and that’s what any equation tells me. Students, and I would guess mathematical novices in general, tend to get caught up in the details of the mathematics, and the numerical manipulation. So. How do I ask students to write so that they understand that the story of the material universe is written in mathematics, and quantitatively verified to be so?

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