What’s the “right” order to teach Physics?

As we move forward with content development for the online Physics course, there are interesting discussions about the order to present the topics of the course.  Do we do it the “traditional” way?  Or, do we use the findings of Physics education research?  We are not basing the course on a textbook, so it is all wide open.  How to decide?

Physics teachers are a product of their training and professional development.  I have had the opportunity to learn from some of the true master teachers in my field.  One of the most influential workshops I attended was the “Activity Based Physics Institute” at Dickinson College.  There I spent four weeks learning about the approach used in publications such as Real Time Physics and Workshop Physics.  Not just how to do it, but also why we should do it.  Curriculum that is research-based and tested.  This means that I have some opinions that disagree with tradition.

One point of contention is when to start working in two dimensions.  The traditional method is to add the second dimension immediately after finishing one dimensional kinematics.  Some reformists say hold off on the second dimension until after Newton’s Laws of Motion are applied to systems with one or more forces along a single line.  This is called the “New Mechanics” sequence (Laws, 1993). This approach allows students to get a firm grasp on what acceleration is and how force relates to acceleration.  However, this approach does not appear to be widespread.

Why do we stick with “traditional” approaches when research has shown reasons to do otherwise?

Laws, P.W. (1993) “A New Order for Mechanics pp. 125-136, Proceedings of the Conference on the Introductory Physics Course, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy New York, May 20-23, Jack Wilson, Ed.)

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