Tuesday, June 14, 2011

UBC Physics for 21st Century

In this first post from the Division of Physics Education (DPE) sessions at the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Annual Congress at Memorial University in Newfoundland I want to cover a paper delivered this afternoon by Andrzej Kotlicki of the University of British Columbia. The paper was entitled "Physics teaching for the 21st century" and the basic premise was that we need to make physics problems and activities more grounded in the real world.

It was argued that the way we have taught physics, using highly idealized and unrealistic overly abstract problems, may be well suited to the tiny minority who will go on to become professional physicists, but is not the sort of education needed for a scientifically literate public. This philosophy is elegantly summarized by the UBC team in the following way: "The great problems of the 20th century were solved by a few incredibly smart people. The great problems of the 21st century will have to be solved by billions of moderately smart people. This is where teachers come in..."

With financial assistance from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the UBC TLEF, the UBC research group has developed a rich set of teaching resources that they are making freely available to the physics teaching community via a well structured website http://c21.phas.UBC.ca

They provide videos, articles, real-life homework problems, experiments and activities that can be done at home, Powerpoint slides, questions for tests and exams, and dats sheets. The latter is one of my favourites. As teachers trying to make realistic problems it is often hard to find reliable information such as the drag coefficient of a typical car, the rolling resistance of a bike wheel, the average amount of greenhouse gas emitted by burning a liter of gasoline or the average albedo of the Earth. As well as giving the actual values, they indicate the approximate uncertainty and an internet source for the information.

As of today there are 65 articles divided into three categories: tools and techniques, energy and environment, and biology and medicine. You can also do a general search, or links for particular keywords. The anticipated level is stated for each, with most being high school or introductory university. They are produced by a team of fourteen faculty, teachers, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students. Work continues this summer so more resources will be added.

To give you a flavor for the contents, some of the more popular titles are radioactive milk, how regenerative auto braking works, tar sands, thermal radiation from the body, electric shock hazards, and why you can't immediately turn a nuclear reactor off. The techniques section include an introduction to spreadsheets for numerical models,

The resources are covered by a creative commons policy so essentially you are allowed to use them for noncommercial applications as long as attribution is given. The team would appreciate knowing of institutions that make use of the materials. They also welcome contributions of similar resources from other physics educators.

This is a superb resource to help us teach the sort of problems that are realistic and meaningful to our students. It will also be valuable for those involved in science outreach. But don't take our word for it - visit their website and see for yourself.

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