FEd December 1997 Newsletter - A New College Physics Approach

December 1997



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A New College Physics Approach

Alexander Dickison

A new modular approach to the standard algebra/trigonometry based physics course is being developed, with the help of a NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant, in a project is called Introductory College Physics/Twenty First Century (ICP/21). The material, which will target engineering and medical technology students, will be at a level that will make it acceptable for transfer to any university. ICP/21 is unique in that it takes into account recent developments in physics education research, changes in student goals, and advances in technology that can be used in the classroom.

Course Philosophy

ICP/21 places importance on students understanding the basic concepts and having confidence in applying them, rather than exposing them to many ideas which are neither understood nor remembered. Several features are found throughout each module.

  • Students are actively engaged. The need for lectures has been greatly reduced. Most classroom time is devoted to laboratories, work sheet activities, and discussion among students.

  • The curriculum will have two tracks. One will incorporate the advantages of using high technology equipment in the laboratory and classroom (MBL, CBL, multimedia, computer analysis of data), while the second track will allow instructors to teach the same concepts using traditional equipment.

  • Quantitative problem solving is equally important as student understanding of the concepts. Procedures and problem solving strategies will be emphasized and not just getting the "right answers." Students will use multiple representations for most problems and be able to tie together the knowledge gained by analyzing a problem from a pictorial, physical, graphical, and mathematical perspective.

  • Through the use of learning cycles students will actively test their own conceptual understandings of our natural world. If their conceptual models do not work they will be led to the construction of a more accepted scientific module that does. Each module will contain 3 to 5 sections.

Motivational Techniques

In addition to the pedagogical approach used, there is also the problem of student motivation. College physics students more and more (especially technical students) want to understand why they need to take physics.

  • ICP/21 uses applications found in industry and medicine throughout the problem sets and examples. Students quickly understand that physics is an important underpinning in their field of study. This has turned out to be one of the hardest parts of the project for the authors. It is difficult to find applications that are not too complicated and that fit the simple models of introductory college physics.

  • Modeling is emphasized. The necessary simplifications and assumptions that are made by physicists in developing the simple models and theories used in introductory college physics are clearly explained. These models give "approximate" answers to "real-world" problems. Possible modifications are also introduced, which could be made to some models by engineers or researchers in order to give better answers.

Module Format

Each module (approximately three weeks of work) will be broken up into 3 to 5 sections. Each section will incorporate a Learning Cycle.

  • Introduction: Motivational with video showing "real-world" applications. Present an overarching question to be answered in the section.
  • Exploration: Hands on chance for students to test their preconceptions.
  • Reflection: Time for students to commit to their current beliefs.
  • Dialog: Usually by class discussion the model used by scientists is developed.
  • Extension: "Extend" the model with various "types" of homework and activities.
  • Application: Pull together many of the concepts into an application exercise or capstone project.


An exciting feature is that all ten modules, plus a toolkit, will be available on an CD-ROM. The CD-ROM will be for the instructor to use. It will contain a user's guide and the "quick pick" form of the student edition. The student edition can be edited. Instructors can change the laboratories, take out any parts they do not want to use, or add their favorite material. During the editing, the instructors can delete or add problems and exercises, so the modules meet the mathematical level of their students. The end result can be printed locally and sold in the bookstore just as a regular textbook. The authors and physics "topics" are as follows:

[webmaster note: I've inserted hyper links where I could find them. Some of these folks can't be located because insufficient information is given to identify the institution and/or their institution does not provide useful directory services.]

Name/College Physics Topic
Sherry Savrda /
Lake Sumter Community College
Alexander Dickison - PI/
Seminole Community College
Leo Takahashi /
Penn State University - Beaver Campus
Marvin Nelson
- CoPI/
Green River Community College
Rebecca Hartzler /
Edmonds Community College
Pearley Cunningham - CoPi/
Community College of Allegheny County
Charles Robertson /
University of Washington
Charles Lang /
University of Nebraska
Lincoln and Omaha Westside High School
Brian Box /
North Oklahoma College
Roger Edmonds and John Terrell
Middlesex Community College

The authors are looking for physics faculty willing to review parts or all of any module. This input is important in the achievement of the best modules possible. The modules are presently available in hard copy. Toward the end of summer 1998, the first CDs will be available. Field testing will begin during the 1998-99 school year. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact the author.

Alexander Dickison is a Professor and Chair of the Physical Sciences Department at Seminole Community College, Sanford, Florida. He is Treasurer of AAPT.