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Introducing Physics Concepts with Illustrative Stories

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Engineering Physics Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

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Paper Authors


Yumin Zhang Southeast Missouri State University

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Yumin Zhang is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, Southeast Missouri State University. His academic career started in China; in 1989 he obtained master’s degree on Physics from Zhejiang University and then was employed as technical staff in the Institute of Semiconductors, Chinese Academy of Sciences. After receiving PhD degree on Electrical Engineering from University of Minnesota in 2000, he started to work as a faculty member in University of Wisconsin-Platteville and then in Oklahoma State University-Stillwater. His research fields include semiconductor devices and electronic circuits. Since joining Southeast Missouri State University in 2007, he also investigated in the field of Engineering Education.

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David K. Probst P.E. Southeast Missouri State University

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David Probst is Professor and Chair of the Physics and Engineering Physics Department at Southeast Missouri State University. Prior to joining Southeast, he was with McDonnell Douglas Corporation (now the Boeing Company) in St. Louis, MO.

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Introducing Physics Concepts with Illustrative Stories

The algebra based Introductory Physics course is offered to all students majoring in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, and Polytechnic Studies in our college. One of the challenges for these students in learning this course is grasping the physics concepts. They have the tendency to reduce learning to memorizing, and fail to concentrate their effort on understanding the theoretical structure and the connections between concepts and reality.

Fortunately, most concepts in this course are closely related to everyday life experience, so they can be introduced with illustrative stories. Specifically, the automobile is an excellent example for many concepts in Newtonian mechanics. Besides, some theories and concepts can also be introduced by experimental demonstrations and simulations. For example, energy conservation can be illustrated by the motion of a pendulum. The interactive simulation in PhET1 is very helpful, where the kinetic and potential energy levels are demonstrated clearly. In addition, one can slow down the time so that students can see more clearly the transition between these two forms of energy. Furthermore, air friction can be activated and its magnitude is adjustable, in this way the dissipation of energy can be illustrated.

The effectiveness of this approach in teaching Introductory Physics I was assessed with Force Concept Inventory (FCI). At the beginning of the semester, a subset of FCI was tested. At the end of the semester, the complete set of FCI was used in testing, and the gain measured is statistically significant. Following Richard Hake’s formula of knowledge gain, the result is G=0.43, far higher than the national average of 0.23 with traditional instruction. On the other hand, a deeper analysis also shows the limitation of the everyday life examples, as air friction makes a big difference at high speed.

Zhang, Y., & Probst, D. K. (2016, June), Introducing Physics Concepts with Illustrative Stories Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25455

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