June 14, 2015
June 14, 2015
June 17, 2015
Engineering Physics & Physics
26.1499.1 - 26.1499.24
Tensions and trade-offs in instructional goals for physics courses aimed at engineersWhat instructional objectives in physics courses most help engineering students succeed in theirsubsequent engineering courses and careers? Faculty often talk vaguely of “problem solvingskills” and “conceptual understanding”; but decades of physics and engineering educationresearch have barely addressed this question empirically (McDermott & Redish, 1999; Meltzer& Thornton, 2012; Prince, 2004).As part of a study that does address this issue, we did an experiment involving the first-semesterphysics course taken by almost all engineering majors at Big State University. One section,taught by a novice instructor, emphasized mathematical sense-making—translating and seekingcoherence between mathematical formalism and physical reasoning (often intuitive), usingmathematics flexibly as part of sense-making about the physical world. Another section, taughtby an experienced, well-regarded professor, emphasized “traditional” quantitative problemsolving of the type emphasized by popular physics textbooks.Some engineering educators argue that traditional problem-solving is important to emphasizebecause it develops important skills that students can build on, skills they apply in laterengineering classes. Others argue that mathematical sense-making is closer to what practicingengineers actually do (Gainsburg, 2006). This paper will not present evidence bearing on thisdebate, in order to focus on a crucial related issue: the trade-off between emphasizingmathematical sense-making and emphasizing traditional problem-solving. Our evidence showsthat they do not automatically reinforce each other. Both sections of the physics course took thesame final exam, and we coded both sets. Students of the novice professor who emphasizedmathematical sense-making exhibited much higher performance on items demanding non-routinemathematical sense-making; but the students expertly instructed in standard quantitative problemsolving performed slightly but statistically-significantly better on traditional quantitativeproblems. We use these results to argue that, at least initially, physics courses can’t “have it all”;tough choices must be made between different instructional goals.ReferencesGainsburg, J. (2006). The mathematical modeling of structural engineers. MathematicalThinking and Learning, 8(1), 3-36.McDermott, L. C., & Redish, E. F. (1999). Resource letter: PER-1: Physics education research.American journal of physics, 67(9), 755-767.Meltzer, D. E., & Thornton, R. K. (2012). Resource letter ALIP–1: active-learning instruction inphysics. American journal of physics, 80(6), 478-496.Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineeringeducation, 93(3), 223-231.
Elby, A., & Kuo, E., & Gupta, A., & Hull, M. M. (2015, June), Tensions and Trade-offs in Instructional Goals for Physics Courses Aimed at Engineers Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24836
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