Defying the rigors of physics
Published: Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 19:11
Algebra-based physics at Oregon State University has earned a reputation among students for being a particularly challenging course. Students and instructors say it covers a broad range of topics and requires dedication to learning its principles.
Courtney Ellis, a senior in biology, is taking physics 201 because her major requires it.
“I’ve heard horror stories about physics and how it’s impossible,” Ellis said.
Students enrolled in the course go to lecture three times a week and attend separate lab and recitation sessions once a week. For homework, Kenneth Walsh, the instructor for the course, assigns around 20 weekly online problems, mostly true or false and multiple choice, as well as a separate set of challenge problems that require more work.
“It’s great practice, as much homework as we do; it’s a great way to learn everything, but there’s challenge homework, and then there’s online homework, and recitation homework, and labs, and with all that it’s just hard to have much time for anything else,” Ellis said.
According to Walsh, the online homework problems require an average of about a minute to three minutes to complete, but the challenge questions require more time and effort. Mastery of the challenge problems helps prepares students for their exams.
“It takes time. Physics is not memorizing things, you have to work with material,” said Henri Jansen, the physics department chair.
According to Walsh, memorization is stressed in high school and even in the undergraduate degrees.
“If you sat down and took the time, you read and you were able to memorize and regurgitate information, you did great . . . it’s where that stops being good enough,” Walsh said.
According to Jansen, although the course covers a wide range of topics and contains “an enormous amount of material,” the department can’t cut out certain topics because many students, especially those taking the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), need to be literate in many topics.
Andrew Stickel, a longtime TA in the series, said that a difficulty the class faces is that “between five and zero percent of the class wants to be in it.”
“Almost everyone is either biology or health science or anatomy majors or something that their major makes them take physics,” Stickel said.
The breadth of the course is not the only challenge students face in the physics 200 series. Students are required to understand the material on multiple levels and apply their knowledge to new situations.
Chris Coffin, the instructor for calculus-based physics, compares physics to learning a new language.
“Fall term, in particular the start of the fall term, is a deep shock until they start getting fluent in the language,” Coffin said. “Suddenly they can relate to it, and their problem solving muscles are better, everything’s better, but it takes some time, and they’re not used to it. It’s like boot camp,”
Walsh says that returning students have said that physics has improved their problem solving skills.
“I get students coming back time and time again that are just like, ‘I can’t believe how easy it is to analyze situations in life now.’”
Walsh believes that beyond learning the lingo, students need to learn problem-solving skills. Coffin compares using the material learned in the course to tools that must be appropriately applied to certain situations.
“The tools you hang in your tool shed all work all the time, but if you need to pound a nail, you don’t want to bring the saw down,” Coffin said.
Walsh’s grading scale takes into account the challenging nature of the course by differentiating “students of true mastery” from those who haven’t completely understood the material.
Students who earn an 85 percent or higher get an “A” in the class, and a failing grade is 44 percent and down, according to Walsh’s syllabus.
“The motivation for that is to try to hit all students,” Walsh said. “I think ideally you’d want to use that entire scale to do the most differentiation between the ‘A’s the ‘B’s and the ‘C’s. So you really want to try and spread them out as much as you can. A side product of that is then I can ask challenging questions.”
Walsh said the scale makes it “very, very possible to pass.”
“I think it’s incredibly fair,” Ellis said. “I’m really glad for it.”
According to statistics provided by Jansen, the class has maintained steady averages over the years. Last year’s fall course averaged out at a 2.31 GPA, with 60 students withdrawing from the course.
For students struggling with the course, there are many avenues for help available. Walsh keeps worksheets on his website for extra practice. Walsh’s syllabus includes multiple resources.
“There’s Google. I always tell them this content has not changed for a hundred years, and there is unlimited numbers or resources to explain each concept in a different way,” Walsh said. “So use your Google.”
Another resource for students is the Worm Hole, where physics TAs answer students’ physics questions.
“I go there several times a week,” Ellis said. “I think it’s very helpful, I don’t know what I’d do without it; I would have a really tough time without it. The TAs are very helpful.”
The algebra-based physics series covers materials from kinematics, the study of objects and motion in the fall to the behavior of light during optics in the spring, with a spattering of other topics in between.
McKinley Smith, news reporter