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Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Elusive Even Among Graduate Engineering Students

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Engineering Physics Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

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Paper Authors


Christos Zahopoulos PhD Northeastern University

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Christos Zahopoulos is Associate Professor at Northeastern University, with a joint appointment in the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, the Department of Physics and the Graduate School of Education. He is also the Founder and, until last year, the Executive Director of Northeastern University's Center for STEM Education. For more than 20 years, Professor Christos Zahopoulos has been actively involved in STEM Education at the local, state and national levels, playing a key role in initiating and implementing numerous STEM Education programs and partnerships, which have received close to $30 million in grants and gifts. He has serves in numerous STEM Education Boards, including the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Professor Zahopoulos received his Ph.D. degree in Physics from Northeastern University and was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

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Some Fundamental Laws of Physics remain elusive even to graduate engineering students, as they cannot understand them well enough to apply them correctly to most situations. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion is one of them, as this present study shows. The “Force Concept Inventory” (FCI)1 questionnaire was given as a pre-assessment at the beginning of the “Scientific Foundations of Engineering” course, which is part of the Gordon Engineering Leadership program and aspires to deepen the understanding of the fundamental laws of science that underlie all engineering disciplines, and after a 2.5-hour session on reviewing mechanics, part of which focused on the conceptual understanding of Newton’s Laws of Motion, the same questionnaire was given as post-assessment. The students showed remarkable improvement. The results of this study and the pedagogical approach used, which the author has developed over a number of years as part of Professional Development courses for Middle and High School STEM Teachers, will be presented and discussed. This approach is consistent with the research findings on How People Learn.

Although it is encouraging to see such a great improvement in the students’ understanding of the laws of motion after only a couple of hours of interactive teaching, what is of even greater interest is to see if the teaching approach that was used was adequate to reverse the students’ misconceptions regarding Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion permanently or if with time the students fall back to their preconceptions. This will be verified or disproved via a delayed post-assessment using the same questionnaire as before, which will be administered to the same graduate students eight months later, just before they finish the academic year. These additional results will be presented, analyzed and discussed in the paper.

Footnotes: 1. Force Concept Inventory, D. Hesthenes, M. Wells & G. Swackhamer, The Physics Teacher, Vol. 30, pp. 141-158 (March 1992) 2. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Expanded Edition), National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. (2000)

Zahopoulos, C. (2016, June), Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Elusive Even Among Graduate Engineering Students Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25798

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