FEd November 1994 Newsletter - The Introductory University Physics Project

November 1994



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The Introductory University Physics Project

Donald F. Holcomb

At the January 1995 AAPT meeting in Orlando, the Introductory University Physics Project team will report on some of the outcomes of the Project's 1991-93 course trials. This Project, whose launching was spearheaded by John S. Rigden and which is sponsored by AAPT and APS and funded by the National Science Foundation, has been focussed primarily on development of alternative syllabi and text material for the introductory, calculus-based, university physics course. The word "alternative" is used to flag the fact that nearly all introductory physics textbooks in current use have very similar selections of topics, pursued in the same sequence, with very similar levels of depth in material for a particular topic. Three important guidelines have guided the IUPP effort, as it probes for attractive alternative syllabi.

(1) Contemporary physics should be a prominent part of the course content.
(2) The total course content should be reduced relative to the status quo. Fewer topics should be covered in more depth.
(3) The course content should have coherence. The topics making up the subject matter of the course should be linked by a story line. The phrase "story line" describes a single or small number of organizing themes which can be used to link sequential segments of the course into a pattern with structure evident to the student.
Although very difficult to attack effectively via a physics content- centered project, we have tried to keep a fourth guideline in mind:
(4) The needs of all student constituencies in the introductory course should be met. (By "constituencies" is meant several varieties of identifiable student groups--different academic interest groups such as pre- engineering or pre-medical students, students with differing levels of background in physics or mathematics, students from underrepresented ethnic groups, women.)

Trials of four different alternative course patterns were conducted, in 1991-92 at the University of Minnesota, the U.S. Military Academy, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. In 1992-93, Amherst and Smith Colleges, California State University at Fullerton, Southwest Missouri State University and Tulane University were added, as well as second year trials at the Academy, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. The designs and contents of these course patterns were summarized in an April 1993 article in Physics Today.

A rather elaborate pattern of course evaluation has relied primarily on direct input from students in the courses. A group of students at each site kept running journals of their reactions to their course. Two to four visits by IUPP evaluation team members (neither authors nor instructors) were made to each site for interviews with students and faculty and for observation of classroom and lab work at the local site. All-class questionnaires were administered at most sites in the spring of 1993. A short, multiple-choice physics subject matter test was administered both before and after the one- year course to both the IUPP class and a parallel comparison class at the same institution. This test, while covering only a few topics, served to give a rough comparison of how well students in the IUPP courses had learned some standard physics materials, in comparison with their colleagues in the parallel comparison course at their institution. This test was motivated by the desire to make certain that we were "doing no harm" to the IUPP students.

The analysis of these evaluation materials has been guided by Dr. Rosanne DiStefano, Associate Professor of Physics at New York Institute of Technology, currently on leave as an NSF Faculty Fellow at the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Final stages of analysis are pointed toward the report at the Orlando AAPT meeting, which will be given by Dr. DiStefano and Don Holcomb, one of the Co-Principal Investors for the Project. (The other Co-Principal Investigator is Larry Coleman, of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.) At this stage, it is clear that they will be able to report examples of real progress concerning the first and third goals-- effective integration of contemporary physics and establishment of a stronger sense of coherence. Progress toward the second goal, which is sometimes summarized in the phrase "less may be more," has been historically more difficult to achieve and is also more difficult to assess. But one or two examples of real success in this area seem to be coming to the surface.

Donald Holcomb is Professor of Physics at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. A condensed-matter physicist, he is co-principal investigator (with Larry Coleman) of the IUPP project, and he served as president of AAPT during 1987.