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Skill Objectives

June 27, 2011


(1:55 plus 1:20)

I’ve been spending some time thinking about skills that I want my students to acquire.  This was partially inspired by the hour of professional development I spent last week attending the Global Physics Department meeting.  The topic was LaTeX, which I have never used but which I have seen demonstrated.  Once a CS professor friend of mine showed me equation-typesetting using LaTeX, but when I went home and tried to figure it out for myself I got frustrated and stopped trying.  So spending an hour at the GPD leaning more was very helpful.

I decided not to require students to use LaTeX.  But I decided I would definitely require all my students to learn to typeset equations, both my first-year students and my AP students.  I will gladly give them a choice as to whether they want to stick with MS Word or if they want to try LaTeX, or Open Office, or GoogleDocs, or whatever.  But I never ever want to read a lab report that tells me that “the equation of the graph is velocity squared equals 19.27 meters per second squared times height plus 0.054 meters squared per second squared.”  At least, never again.  It makes me throw my grading pen, gnash my teeth, pull my hair, and curse out loud.  And while that might momentarily feel good, I mostly don’t enjoy doing that, especially when I am only three lab reports into my grading stack.

While I did berate my students for the sin of writing equations as a set of words to read, and I did demonstrate how to do proper equations in Word using the projector, this was not enough.  So I need to teach it differently, and I think I also need to grade it specifically, as in Standards-Based Grading (SBG).

Thinking about an assignment to hand in a series of equations type-set into a document got me thinking about other skills I definitely want kids to learn.  For example, graphing.  Students should be able to create appropriate graphs by hand and using software, with appropriately labeled axes, appropriately NUMBERED axes (I’m picky about this), enough data points, a best-fit line when appropriate, and a complete, correct equation for the best-fit line if there is one.  So, for example, turning in a graph made in Excel with a trendline and an equation like “y=9.88x+0.3” is not good enough.  The equation needs to include both appropriate units and appropriate variables.   would be correct. Or at least mostly correct.  I did that in LaTeXiT and I haven’t figured out yet how to make the units non-italic.  Only the variables should be italic.

What else? My AP students should know how to add error bars to their graphs and determine the uncertainties in the slopes and y-intercepts and state the values uncertainties with the correct number of digits.  Few of my ten AP students this past year ever managed to do that properly, despite the lab we did at the beginning of the year.  That’s something I need to change.  My AP students should also be able to write programs in Vpython.  I have no idea how to break “write a program in Vpython” into a set of discrete skills I can chart, but I’m going to work on that.

Oh yeah. Also, all my students should be able to figure out how to put Greek letters into their documents!  It astonishes me when a high school senior hands in a lab in which he has spelled out “pi” or “omega” rather than using “insert character” or symbol font.  It’s not as if they need to memorize this stuff, because they have Google!  Google can tell them how to do it!

Have I ranted enough?  Probably enough for today, anyway.  The additional one hour and 20 minutes of work time comes from the GPD meeting and the time I spent thinking about skills and scribbling them down on a scrap of paper from a coupon book, being in my friend’s car at the time and having neglected to bring paper and pen with me.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 11:39 AM

    Hi Fran,
    the quick way to get Roman (non-italic text) inside a math enviroment is to use the command \textrm

    eg $\textrm{Newtons}$ will typeset as Newtons with no italics.

    But there’s an even easier way in LaTeXit and other real latex apps,

    LaTeX has a package called units, which does a wonderful job of typesetting units.

    The syntax is pretty simple. it’s just
    \unit[number goes here]{unit goes here}


    \unit[7.0]{N} would give you 7.0 N (and it even works out the spacing to be less than a full space, which is what it should be).

    To use this package, you must add the line
    \usepackage{units} at the top of your LaTeX document (where you will see a lof of other usepackage commands)

    To use it in LaTeXit, you need ot add it to your template, which you can find under File>Preferences>Templates.

    And the units package doesn’t work in WordPress (no pacakages do), so you’ll need to typeset your units with the \texrrm{} command. And I usually add a thin space (\;) b/t the number and the unit.

    Hope that helps,

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    June 27, 2011 11:46 AM

    Fran, your post makes me think about the phrase “math as the language of science.” When students resort to just writing out the equation in words, we really lose meaning because it’s so hard to see. The structure of an equation, especially a well-typeset one, is inherent in our understanding of the underlying physical principle. When I write a fraction, I try to remember to ask the nearby students “does it make sense that this is in the denominator? If it gets bigger does the answer do what you thought it should do?”

  3. June 27, 2011 11:47 AM

    Thanks, John! I couldn’t even figure out how to use LaTeX in WordPress, though, so that equation is actually a PNG image uploaded to my WordPress account. Sigh. So much to learn, and not enough time to do that and all the OTHER things I want to do!

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