Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Making Physics Popular at college level

Making Physics Popular at college level
Abhay Karnataki,MSc Physics,IIT Bombay,2nd Year student,February 19, 2003

... the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superuous."
This apt remark is a telling comment on the state of instruction and remains as true today as when it was rst quoted by Edward Gibbon. There is a natural inclination in every child, starting from vastness of astronomical objects, as to know how this world works, what laws govern the nature around us. Since this is the subject matter of Physics, there is so much a need to
us to recognize and implement the best possible and natural methodology of imparting physics. Conventional education bombards the students with a gamut of equations which leaves the student grasping for breath. What is needed is a literature that complements this maths with a lucid physical description of phenomena, so as to bring out its natural properties, and
sustain interest and motivation of students.
To this end the books play a very important roll, since the students can spend most of their time with these. Following monumental books form the best foundation in Physics one can have:
Resnick and Halliday.
Berkeley Physics Course, 5 Volumes.
Feynman lecture series, 3 Volumes.
Surely there would be some other combinations, but these are time tested.
Resnick and Halliday develops a curiosity about the methods of Physics and gives a visa to the generalizations of theories, gives glimpses of frontiers, relates the concepts to the real world surrounding us through numerous daily life examples.
Berkeley course endures the student with a rigorous and complete background of future studies. It gives precise limitations and scope of the theory
being presented. The problems are very interesting and give an insight in understanding almost all essential basics of physics. Both of the above give excellent order of magnitude calculations, something which is very important to give a feel of the subject.
Feynman lectures are universally acknowledged as being the best lecture series we ever had on Physics. With his endearing charm and uncharacteristically disarming style of an engaging Physics Teacher, Feynman covers most of Physics in a manner that could be understood by a dedicated beginner. However, no Physics course is complete without the tutorials and recitation
sessions, in which the students are grilled in the concepts told. This is where above books and educators come in. They are in a position to complement the course by giving due emphasis to the appropriate nuances of the subject and clarify the perspectives.
Apart from the books, the next important thing that brings students close to Physics is the experiments. I strongly feel that there is a need of setting up of the experiments rather than doing just observations of already setup experiments. The students must learn how to play with the apparatus, rather than just number crunching. Certainly, the current group of experiments should be retained, but alongside the students should be encouraged to set up some, possibly without grading them on the basis of those setups.
Following areas are very easy to explore:
 Electronics: let them make some simple ligingcircuits! ! Even without understanding how a diode works... BSc students could be encouraged to setting up some Power Supplies, Digital counters. And at the final year some experiments that might involve microprocessors.
 Simple mechanical experiments: using gears, batteries, motors, levers, bearings... the aim of these experiments need not be something directly useful, but something which conveys the essential Physics behind actual real life working systems. Third Volume of Berkeley Physics Course, Waves, provides an excellent set of home experiments.
 Computer programming: Computers should be brought into the work experience of students at an earlier stage. Without bothering too much about the details of programming languages, they should be given a first hand experience of the softwares available. Internet education plays an important role in fast and up to date knowledge of the subject. It has broadened the capacity of the individual to access the vast amount of data. Following activities would be of interest:
-function plotting using softwares.
-plotting trajectories of charged particles in various combinations of E and B fields.
-generation of fractals.
-viewing 3 D images of solids.
Study of classic experiments: some of the classic experiments like Millikan's oil drop experiment, J.J. Thomson's e/m measurement, Michelson's interferometer which are possibly available to undergraduates, should be studied in very much greater detail. The constraints of time should be uplifted
from the students, so should be the burdens of being evaluated for doing the experiment, and its completion. For, the spirit of scientific adventure ( so essential for the joy of doing Physics) can be experienced only in a liberal academic atmosphere free from such mundane constraints.
The courses should be designed so that there is maximum correlation of theory taught and experiments performed. The idea should not necessarily be to cover the entire syllabus, but to convey the essential physics in the subject and to inspire the student by conveying the personal excitement of learning the subject. An inspired student will learn much more on his/ her
own, than what can be taught in the class rooms. A certain care about delicate balance of students' psychological, emotional
inclinations is to be taken by the teachers. I believe that there are no bad students, there are only fast and slow students. Some people grasp some things fast and some do it slowly. There should be both, freedom and care, on the part of the teacher. Teachers can give freedom to self progress and go much ahead in the subject to the fast students, and they have to pay
more attention to those who grasp it slowly.Only a good work culture in the class can impel simultaneous growth of all. To help this grow, assignments can be given by clubbing fast and slow students, where slow students present the conclusions of the work. Such group discussions and seminars of students
would be very helpful.
"Problems for toffies" - this is something which works very well! The idea is to have healthy competition with excitement of prize.
Another activity that can be encouraged is reading of simple, early original papers. These are the landmark papers, which mark the history of science, and milestones in scienti c progress. Since the facts discovered then, are now firmly established and have became accessible to the novice, the
concepts in the papers are easily understandable. On the other hand, the joy of discovery presented in the original papers is unmatched by any later substitute on the same topic.
Often we can celebrate the birth anniversery of a Physicist, with a series of discussions of his/her best works. A wonderful course on Classical Physics through work of Sir G. I. Taylor is being oered in MIT and Harvard. It is an excellent example demonstrating how a single scientist's work can be so
beneficial and illustrating with a wide variety of research areas.
I thank all my teachers who guided me and introduced to the fascinating world of science and in particular Physics.
Let's make learning Physics a celebration.

PS. This article won first prize in a Science essay competition. It was briefly edited by my then friend and now scientist, Ashutosh Jogalekar. You can visit his blog .


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