Previous Newsletters
Current Issue
Contact the Editors

A Course in Matter & Interactions

Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood

Matter Interactions "Matter and Interactions" is a calculus-based introductory physics course for engineering and science students that emphasizes the reductionist nature of physics. That is, from a small number of powerful fundamental principles one can explain a broad range of phenomena. The course emphasizes the atomic nature of matter throughout the mechanics and E&M semesters. Students are engaged in modeling the messy real world by making approximations, simplifying assumptions, idealizations, and estimates. They write computer programs which generate navigable 3D animations to model the motion of physical systems and to visualize fields (see http://vpython.org).

The emphasis on the atomic nature of matter allows us to unify mechanics and thermal physics throughout much of the mechanics semester, culminating with a statistical mechanics treatment of the Einstein solid. This emphasis also makes it possible to unify electrostatics and circuits, two subjects which are usually quite separate from each other.

Much educational research and development has gone into a thorough revision of the sequence of topics in both semesters, to make difficult concepts more accessible to students. For example, Gauss's law is usually treated far too early in the E&M semester for students to be able to understand it. We introduce it late in the semester, with greater success.

There is a two-volume Matter & Interactions textbook (Wiley 2002), a desktop experiment kit for E&M (Pasco), a comprehensive set of problems in WebAssign, and an extensive set of instructor support materials. See http://www4.ncsu.edu/~rwchabay/mi, for more information including PowerPoint presentations about the curriculum.

Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood are members of the Physics Department at North Carolina State University. Ruth Chabay is a Professor of Physics and Bruce Sherwood is a Research Professor and Distinguished Educator in Residence . Both have research interests that rest within the field of Physics Education. Specifically they work to bring together research on learning and teaching, powerful computer tools and an understanding of contemporary physics in order to design curricular materials and courses that reflect the views of today's physicists.