Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Taking a deep breath …

Posted by Arjendu on September 10, 2008

It’s the end of the summer for us, finally, done, school starts on Monday, the leaves are beginning to fall, and jackets are definitely needed, syllabi are being written, the students are arriving on campus, all that.

I am looking forward to teaching an introductory mechanics class based on Chabay and Sherwood’s Matter and Interactions perspective/textbook. I like this perspective very much, but still haven’t figured out how to make it mine. I’ll be blogging about it as the term goes, but in quick summary, here’s what the class looks like:

It is a ground-up, computational take on mechanics. We talk about matter as composed of atoms, and then say that that first and easiest way to model the behavior of *all* matter is through interactions between them (forces). The properties of forces are first studied through kinematics — that is, looking at motion resulting from forces. And here is the most important jump — we study a variety of forces, with some analytical work, but almost immediately get into coding up these forces on the computer and visualizing their effect. We use VPython (visual python) which is both freely available and well-suited to this course, to do this. And we see how far we can get in 4.5 weeks on this (yes, this is Carleton, that’s all the time we get).

How far do I expect to get? Last time I taught this, 2 years ago, the students had managed to model (1) the behavior of binary inspiraling stars (of particular interest to us here, given the presence of Joel Weisberg on the faculty, as well as because Nelson Christensen’s group is part of the LIGO consortium) as well as (2) a sound wave in a solid, based on thinking of atoms as balls and springs strung together. And they’ve learned about momentum conservation, energy conservation, and all those things that you’re supposed to think about in intro mechanics. The kinds of forces we look at are significantly more general than the typical intro course, although it’s not supposed to be an ‘advanced’ course as much as an ‘alternate’ course. And I think it is an excellent alternative for reasons I have ranted about elsewhere — mainly that to only talk about falling balls and sliding blocks is a really silly way to introduce people to the power and breadth of Newtonian analysis.

I am currently focusing on the appropriate chunking and pacing of the material: I have 14 class meetings and 5 weekly lab meetings available to me, and the more I anticipate the rhythm of the term and the course, the less I shall have to adjust on the fly — there isn’t a lot of play with that sort of schedule.

Taking in a deep breath, to be let out at the end of the course …


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