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 experience.

... 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.