Applied Physics 50 Offers Innovative Teaching Style

A new applied physics class will have neither exams nor lectures. In fact, the students themselves will do most of the actual teaching.

Applied Physics 50: “Physics as a Foundation for Science and Engineering” will serve as a new gateway application-oriented introductory physics class and will debut in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences this fall. It will utilize “Peer Instruction,” an unconventional pedagogical style championing active student learning through interactive team projects that challenge students to apply their learning to real-world problems. For example, instead of speaking in front of the classroom, the professor will guide students as they design Rube-Goldberg machines, unmanned space missions, and musical instruments.

Eric Mazur, course instructor and developer of the unusual teaching method, proposed the idea for the course after receiving rave feedback from students enrolled in his course, Physics 95: “Topics in Current Research.” His hope is to improve the perception of the typical introductory physics course, which “most students would take reluctantly without understanding its purpose or applicability,” he said.

“Why just take notes about blocks sliding down an inclined plane? You’ll probably forget everything as soon as the course is over. Real learning takes place when you learn in context,” Mazur said.

The course was structured to foster the spirit of effective collaboration that the instructors hope to cultivate in students. The course will cover physics at approximately the level of Physics 11a and Physics 11b through three-month-long projects each semester, each relating to an engineering discipline or important field such as energy or the environment.

Moreover, students will display their insights in organized presentations given throughout the semester. Even the course’s location in Pierce 301 lends itself to its unusual teaching style; students will sit at round tables, giving them little choice but to engage with one another.

“We want to emphasize peer instruction and how important it is for students to engage and have meaningful conversations with each other,” said new course preceptor Carolann Koleci.

“No matter what career paths the students take, it is absolutely essential to have an applicable understanding of the world around them and to know how to apply what they’ve learned in one context to that of another,” she added.

Hands-on approaches to pedagogy are being integrated into an increasing number of SEAS courses. SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray stated that the courses play an important role in making the study of math, science, and engineering more engaging for students with a variety of learning styles.

“This fits into SEAS plans for being at the forefront of learning in pedagogy, and then applying the science of learning in our courses,” Murray said.

Instructors hope that the course will appeal to both loyal engineering students and students from other disciplines who want to see how physics applies to the real world. The new learning style has sparked considerable interest and debate amongst students.

Danielle M. Ithier ’15 said that Harvard’s lack of interactive projects for engineers in the past was frustrating for many students.

“I'm glad the school is taking the initiative to change this and is doing it while teaching concepts like introductory physics,” Ithier said.

Students also pointed out that, while the new methods may make courses more relevant and exciting for students, they may have the reverse effect if not implemented correctly.

“If the course is taught badly then students get less of an understanding of both the fundamental physics...as well as how it's applied,” Josh S. Speagle ’15 said.

Applied Physics 50a will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1pm to 4pm in Pierce 301.

—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at aabu@college.harvard.edu.

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