The special joy of teaching first year physics
Erich Vogt, exerpts from Am. J. Physics, 75:581-582, 2007
The general goals of any undergraduate physics course are to impart knowledge of
the physics content; to enhance the students' sense of wonder, which is such an
important human attribute, especially for the pursuit of science; to develop the
students' analytical skills, which are essential not only for understanding
physics but for almost any other field of human inquiry; to describe how science
works and how effective mathematics is for this purpose; to contribute to
life-changing experiences, which should be part of a university education; and
to make the course a challenge to the intellect and an enjoyable learning
... The students enter the university with great expectations, they are not
jaded and their sense of wonder is largely intact, they respond to good
teaching, and their learning ability appears to be at a maximum. The usual first
year fare - which includes the edifices of Newtonian mechanics and
electromagnetism along with the accompanying calculus - allows them to quickly
reach great heights in science. All physics departments should capitalize on
these first year circumstances.
In first year physics there are endless opportunities to excite wonder and to
make the students' eyes light up. One example that illustrates what works for me
is Olber's Paradox, Why is the night sky not infinitely bright?, for which the
proper formulation of the question leads to an analogy with the logic of Gauss'
theorem in electromagnetism and the shell theorem for gravity inside the Earth.
Beyond its helpfulness as an analogy, the paradox remains deeply embedded in the
students' minds because it teaches them how astonishingly simple observations
can raise profound questions. Another example is the extension of wave velocity
in a string to the high wave velocity of tsunami waves. (The velocity of ocean
waves is proportional to the square root of the height of the column of water
displaced, which contrasts tsunami waves to shallow, and therefore low-speed,
wind-driven ocean waves.) This application immediately relates to the familiar
and compelling pictures of tsunami waves traversing the Indian Ocean and piling
up on its shores. A general catalyst for wonder in the lectures is the relation
of the core material being taught to ideas at the frontiers of physics. ... The students like to be
embedded in a living science.