Overview of the Course

Contents: Guiding Principles The Six Ideas Features of the Text Computer Programs The Instructor's Manual


This course was inspired by (and its development supported by) the Introductory University Physics Project (1987-1995).It and supporting text and instructor's materials have been designed to be consistent with the three guiding principles articulated by the IUPP Steering Committee early in the project:

  • Less is more: Research has shown that the pace of a standard introductory course does not permit enough time for students to effectively absorb the concepts.
  • Include 20th-century physics: As we enter the 21st century, the focus of the standard course on 19th-century physics gives students (32 out of 33 of which will never take another physics course) a mistaken impression of what physics is about.
  • Use a storyline: In a standard course, the topics discussed are like beads on a string, one following another without obvious purpose or direction. A storyline provides students with a direction and a sense of purpose as well as highlighting the fact that some physics ideas are more important than others.

In addition to these principles, the design of Six Ideas is based on two additional principles:

  • Pay attention to the results of educational research: The text is designed to encourage students to be active readers, and offers the instructor many options for active learning in class and in "recitation" sections. The text also offers new approaches even to standard topics to help students avoide well-known misconceptions, and explicitly discusses the model-building process. Educational research suggests that these features will help students learn the ideas of physics better and retain them longer. The instructor's guide provides teachers with detailed guidance on using these features.
  • Seek the middle way: This course is designed to stand somewhere between the standard introductory physics course (which research suggests is fairly ineffective at really teaching physical thinking skills) and radical revisions of the standard course (which may be quite a bit more effective but are often very difficult to implement because they require significant changes in infrastructure, class scheduling, and/or related courses). This course is meant to provide a more educationally effective introduction to physics that can be taught using basically the same framework and infrastructure as a standard introductory course.

The ultimate point of all of these principles is to help professors develop introductory physics courses that practically and effectively help students develop powerful physical reasoning skills. For more discussion of this issue, see the Problems and Goals section of the Online Preface.

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The Six Ideas course is divided into six modules or units , each focused on a single idea that has been crucial in the development of physics since the 1600s. The exploration of each idea provides the "storyline" for the unit, directing and focusing students' study of physics. The six units are:

  1. Unit C: Conservation Laws Constrain Interactions (ISBN 0-07-229152-4). This unit discusses conservation of momentum, energy, and angular momentum as well as a certain amount of basic thermal physics (14 class sessions).
  2. Unit N: The Laws of Physics are Universal (ISBN 0-07-239712-8). This unit explores newtonian mechanics, culminating in a discussion of planetary orbits and Newton's great synthesis of terrestrial and celestial mechanics (13 class sessions).
  3. Unit R: The Laws of Physics are Frame-Independent (ISBN 0-07-239714-4). This unit explores the theory of special relativity, including relativistic dynamics (10 class sessions).
  4. Unit E: Electric and Magnetic Fields are Unified (ISBN 0-07-239711-X). This unit explores the nature of electromagnetic fields, culminating in a discussion of Maxwell's equations and electromagnetic waves (16 class sessions).
  5. Unit Q: Particles Behave Like Waves (ISBN 0-07-239713-6). This unit explores the basic features of quantum physics, with optional sections on nuclear physics and the Schroedinger equation (8 to 15 class sessions).
  6. Unit T: Some Processes are Irreversible ( ISBN 0-07-239715-2). This unit finishes the discussion of thermal physics by discussing entropy from a modern statistical viewpoint (9 class sessions).

Each unit is a separate paperback volume that retails for about $30. You can also order all six volumes as a bundle (ISBN 0-07-256482-2) for about $140. The order given above is the nominal order in which the units should be presented: however, other orders are possible.

These units can be taught to fairly well-prepared students in two semesters (three units per semester) or in three quarters (two units per quarter). The pace of the course can be reduced either by teaching it in three semesters (or four quarters), by cutting parts of unit Q , or by cutting entire units. These options (and the rationale for ordering the units this way) are discussed more fully in the Instructor's Manual.

Note how contemporary physics topics are built into the course structure. To make space for these topics, the time spent on some classical topics (such as fluid mechanics, the details of rotational dynamics, AC circuits, and ray optics) has been greatly reduced. However, the text makes room for the contemporary topics mostly by very tightly focusing on the topics that are discussed, thus avoiding tangents that waste time and act as sources of "conceptual noise" that divert students' attention from the important issues.

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Six Ideas That Shaped Physics is much more than just an textbook that rearranges the topics of physics. Research performed during the last two decades has illuminated both the kinds of difficulties that students have learning physics and methods that help students learn more effectively. The Six Ideas text has a number of features designed (with the results of this educational research in mind) to help students develop a robust and flexible understanding of the ideas.

One of my most important goals for the Six Ideas text was make it easier for students to depend on the text (instead of in-class lectures) as their primary source of information. This is necessary if instructors are to have time to do the kind of active-learning activities that educational research has shown to be important for developing students' understanding of the ideas. The textbook therefore consciously uses a number of techniques to make the text more useful as the primary source of information. These techniques include a more expansive and conversational writing style than is usually the case in physics textbooks as well as a variety of tools that support students in becoming "active readers."

In addition, I have provided a number of aids designed to help students keep the "big picture" in view, recognize and learn technical terms, and more easily review the important issues in each chapter. The homework problems are deliberately designed so that students are goaded to (and rewarded for) thinking physically instead of performing rote operations. Finally, the textbook provides direct support for various kinds of active-learning exercises that are useful both inside and outside the class.

The text does not include answers to problems to give instructors the maximum flexibility in assigning problems. Short answers (as well as complete solutions) are available in the instructor's manual. Instructors are encouraged to make answers to either odd-numbered or even-numbered problems available to students.

For more detailed information about the features of the text, see the Online Preface as well as the Information for Students section in each printed volume.

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There are a variety of computer programs available on this web site that support the text in a number of ways. Some of these programs (Newton, SchroSolver, StatMech, MBoltz, EBoltz, and Equilib) are explicitly described in the second edition of the text. These programs help students study realistic applications where the mathematics would be too difficult to do by hand. However, in all cases, these programs simply automate calculations that students are taught to do by hand. These programs therefore simply extend their abilities rather than being black boxes.

Past experience does suggest that students earn the material more effectively if they use the programs both in class and in homework.

All of the programs are freeware, and may be downloaded from the Computer Programs page and may be freely distributed. Versions are available for both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. Source code is also available on that page.

For further discussion of the philosophy behind these programs and how one might most effectively use them, see the Online Preface and the Instructor's Manual.

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The IUPP testing process made it clear that it is not straightforward to transfer even a successful course from one institution to another: many things about the course have to be adjusted and adapted to fit the new context. Building on more than a decade of experience teaching Six Ideas at Pomona College and other institutions, we have designed the Instructor's Manual for the Six Ideas course to help instructors create successful adaptations of Six Ideas that fit their contexts. The resulting instructor's manual is much more comprehensive than the instructor's manuals that come with typical texts. In addition to exploring the unusual features of the course and carefully explaining the logic behind them, the instructor's manual provides information and advice about

  1. using the active-learning features of the text,
  2. the elements of good course design,
  3. how to evaluate Six Ideas homework, and
  4. possible associated lab programs

The fourth item is particularly important, because early trials indicated that it is possible for a Six Ideas course to fail if one uses a traditional approach to assigning and grading homework. There are a wide range of possible "right" ways to treat homework, though; the instructor's manual discusses these approaches in some detail.

Short answers and full solutions to problems and sample exams and quizzes are available online through the password-protected instructor's web site.

The Online Preface discusses in more depth what one can find in the instructors manual, which is available online in PDF format.If you ar an instructor using the text, you can alternatively request a hard copy of the Instructor's Manual using this McGraw-Hill site or by contacting your local sales representative. (However, the online materials will be more up-to-date and are available instantly.)

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