Friday, March 26, 2004

Teaching High School Physics

In a comment on my last post, Suresh Venkat said "On the other hand, we teach school-age children Newtonian physics without laying out a careful argument why the thesis must hold."

This caught me as strange so I asked one of our Indian graduate students how he learned physics in school. He said they were given the appropriate theory and formulas. I asked if they did experiments. He said they were given descriptions of experiments on exams and had to predict the outcome but they never actually performed any experiments.

This is in sharp contrast to my high school physics class in New Jersey. We did many experiments in small groups as well as some class demonstrations to show that the predictions of the theory roughly corresponded to reality. My favorite demonstration simulated the following thought experiment: If a person aims a gun directly at a monkey in a tree and the monkey, scared of the sight of the gun, falls out of the tree at exactly the time the gun was shot, the bullet will hit the monkey since gravity affects the horizontally moving bullet and the vertically moving monkey exactly the same.

My physics teacher attached a stuffed monkey to the ceiling via an electromagnet. He had a device that fired a metal ball at the monkey that was rigged so the magnet would cut out and the monkey would fall at the same time as the ball was fired. True to the theory, the ball hit the monkey in mid-air. Of course there was that hole in the blackboard from the one year the monkey didn't fall.

Which teaching method is superior? In India they can go into more depth in the theory since they don't spend time on experiments. However I don't think you truly get an understanding for a scientific principle without getting your hands dirty.

Update: Venkat responds on his weblog. Perhaps I shouldn't have generalized Indian education from one data point.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. By the way, i came across these excellentphysics flashcards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!