Nothing Too Theoretical About this Physics Class

Lauren Weatherdon: First year physics course helps see the world through a new lens - photo by Martin Dee
Lauren Weatherdon: First year physics course helps see the world through a new lens – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2008

By Brian Lin

Lauren Weatherdon had never taken physics until last fall. She didn’t expect to like it either.

“The people I had spoken with didn’t enjoy first-year physics courses, and didn’t find the knowledge helpful in real life,” says the English-biology double major. “I was pleasantly surprised. I’m even considering switching from biology to physics.”

Weatherdon’s reaction is what a group of instructors and teaching assistants had hoped to achieve when they got together last summer to redesign PHYS 100, an introductory course offered by the Dept. of Physics.

More than 700 students studied basic physics concepts by dissecting and analyzing real-world situations such as energy consumption and the greenhouse effect, the first time such an approach has been taken in a mandatory undergraduate physics course.

“The conventional approach to teaching first-year physics involves a lot of esoteric problems that are good intellectual exercises if you’re interested in physics,” says instructor Andrzej Kotlicki, who has taught physics for 40 years. “But in a course like PHYS 100, you simply can’t assume that.”

The bulk of the students are from arts and life sciences, where only minimal physics courses are required. Half of the students have never taken physics and more than half never take physics again.

“This may be the only formal exposure to physics for these students, and their impression here may last a lifetime,” says Sandy Martinuk, a PhD student and teaching assistant who helped redesign the course.

Kotlicki and fellow instructors Fei Zhou and Georg Rieger drew inspiration from the hottest topic on earth and devised lectures, lab experiments and assignments to not only show students how physics lives in everyday situations but also to empower them to apply scientific problem-solving skills in other contexts.

For example, students in class are led step by step to examine and calculate the amount of energy it takes to fly a commercial jetliner, taking into account factors such as altitude, acceleration, drag, fuel and engine type and passenger load.

Other scenarios include comparing the energy efficiency of an SVU to a Prius hybrid vehicle and extrapolating global greenhouse effects based on data from a real greenhouse.

In parallel with these changes to the course, the new crop of teaching assistants has been put through a TA training program. This training gives them the tools to help students learn to flex their own critical muscles.

“We’re encouraging TAs to examine their own ‘expert-like’ thinking — which often involves skipping certain steps that have become second nature — so that they can impart this flow of logic to their students,” says Mya Warren, a TA who spearheaded the program that also includes mentoring by senior TAs and regular discussions with instructors.

“I’ve come to realize that teaching is so much more than just answering questions. The process has made me a better teacher and a better physicist,” says Warren. “I may be a physics professor one day and this is a very important part of the job.”

All 45 incoming graduate students in the Dept. of Physics completed the mandatory program last fall. It will be offered to current TAs starting next term.

For the first time, students are asked to team up and present a project where they use real data to prove or debunk myths about energy consumption. “I’ve never seen such enthusiasm in this class,” says Kotlicki, adding that it makes the extra time and energy he devoted to revamping the course well worth it.

Martinuk is documenting that enthusiasm as part of his PhD thesis. The first doctoral student in the department to focus on physics education, Martinuk joins a growing number of physicists who are looking into the unique traits that makes good physics teaching stick.

He’s been working with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) to implement surveys that measure students’ attitude and beliefs towards Physics. His study, along with the TA training program, is now part of a five-year project funded by the CWSEI to systematically improve learning in the department.

“There’s already been a significant improvement in how confident students feel about their ability to assess a situation and problem-solve,” says Martinuk. “This is important because educational research has shown that positive beliefs help bridge the connection between knowledge — what you have — and process — what you do with that knowledge.”

Lauren Weatherdon: First year physics course helps see the world through a new lens.

UBC Science Students Crème de la Crème

Incoming UBC Science students might as well have ivy on their acceptance letters.

A recent review of admissions standards indicates first-year science students here are comparable to students at prestigious Ivy League schools and superior to those at any U.S. public university.

Researchers from the UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) and Planning And Institutional Research (PAIR) compared first-year students at UBC with those from a number of major U.S. universities by examining their ranking among their high school cohorts and how those cohorts rated in international comparisons.

“We found that when it comes to science students in Canada and the U.S., UBC is slightly less selective than the most elite Ivy League schools such as Yale University. However, it is more selective than the next tier of Ivy’s such as Columbia and well ahead of the leading U.S. public Universities,” says CWSEI director and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman.

The “average” first-year science student at UBC ranked at the 94th percentile in their high school class. The corresponding class ranking for all first-year students at SFU and UVic are 82 and 85.5, respectively.

Statistics Canada’s 2006 Performance for International Student Assessment shows that B.C. high school students score on average 50 points higher than U.S. students in science. This means that the 94th percentile science student in a B.C. high school is equivalent to the 96th percentile student in a U.S. high school. This 96th percentile equivalent can be compared with leading U.S. universities such as Yale at 97.5, Columbia at 95.5, University of Virginia at 95, and the other most prominent and selective U.S. public universities in the 91-93 percentile range.

“This gives us a benchmark for comparing student achievement,” says Wieman. “It also helps us set educational standards and expectations for success that are appropriate to the quality of the students.”

There are currently no common measures of student quality across Canada and the U.S. The CWSEI comparison is based on publicly available data, which precludes high school scores from other Canadian provinces. The B.C. stats were made available through Ministry of Education’s Student Transitions Project.

The full report is available at: