Managing first-year physics

Thursday, June 4, 2015

High school students listen to a university physics lecture.Every science major remembers the challenges of their first-year physics course. But an introduction to physics can also lead to an exciting metamorphosis according to Professor Robert Mann of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, who has taught Physics 121 for more than ten years.

It’s easy to forget the conceptual side is what stumps students most,” said Mann.

For Mann, there is no magic classroom technology. His experience has shown that students find it extremely difficult to reconceptualize from an everyday, deeply-embedded Aristotelian view to a scientific Newtonian view of the world.

Professor Robert MannHe starts with what students already have – their scientific intuition – and adds live demonstrations and clever examples, to help them see the world as physicists.

Take Newton’s first law of motion, which states that an object in motion will remain in motion at the same speed and direction until it’s acted upon by another force. If you throw an object and it comes to a stop, the object hasn’t lost its velocity. Another force – in this case friction – acts upon it to slow it down and eventually bring it to a stop.

In addition to demonstrations, Mann also gets students involved in the problem solving process by asking them questions during his lectures. He characterizes himself as a bit of a “sage on the stage”.

Even if they don’t get the answer to a question right, they nearly always get it partly right,” said Mann. “I like to listen and help guide them to the correct answer.”

Mann admits large class sizes of 150 to 200 students in introductory physics can be a challenge for both students and professors. So to give students more personal attention, Mann offers weekly tutorial sessions and one-on-one appointments to answer questions outside of class.

But a surprisingly small fraction of students take advantage of these resources. For students to be successful, he notes, it’s important they work together and ask for help.

Mann’s advice to students: “Follow your curiosity and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Professor Mann is the former chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and an Affiliate member at Perimeter Institute. He received the University of Waterloo’s Distinguished teaching award in 2009.