Ruth Chabay
North Carolina State University
Computing in the Introductory Physics Course
Traditionally the introductory calculus-based physics course has focused
only on problems that can be solved analytically with algebra and basic
calculus. In mechanics, this emphasis on a restricted set of problems with
known solutions does not let students experience the power of the
Newtonian synthesis, which allows the open-ended prediction of motion into
the future, given initial conditions and interaction laws. In E&M, it
restricts field calculations to special cases. The Matter & Interactions
curriculum includes computation as an integral part of both the mechanics
and E&M semesters. Students at NC State and other institutions using this
curriculum write computer programs to predict and animate in 3D the
behavior of interacting systems, and to calculate and display electric and
magnetic fields in 3D. The introduction of computing into the curriculum
raises a number of questions, including how to design highly efficient and
effective instruction on computing, and how to identify and deal with the
particular difficulties students have with computing in the context of
physics. I will report on studies focusing on these issues in the context
of mechanics, and will describe their impact on this component of
instruction.