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March 10, 2013

[I seriously need to start posting here more often!]

I have a student who is a semifinalist. He scored high enough on the AAPT’s “F=ma” exam to be invited to take the next test, the exam that will choose the potential members of the US Physics team. The exam needs to be taken by March 22. It is six questions, and 3 hours long.

My student and I have been working every day after school on the questions from previous versions of this exam. The solutions are freely available on the AAPT’s website. The questions are extremely challenging. The topics for the questions include nuclear physics, relativity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and fluids. The relativity problems include knowledge of 4-vectors and I am very glad I had a copy of Taylor and Wheeler’s Spacetime Physics to lend because that stuff isn’t in Halliday, Resnick, and Walker. Not even in the extended edition.

However, I cannot solve these problems. Even with the solutions in front of me, I find myself confused and humbled. I don’t know why γ for a monatomic gas is 5/3 or how to determine the magnetic flux through a wire loop for a hypothetical magnetic monopole. The answer I got is completely different from the solution, which includes an indefinite integral. My student is gifted in mathematics and aces every AP Physics test I give, and as he works through the problems he understands some things that I don’t.

I know that confusion is ignorance leaving the brain. I try to have a growth mindset and not a fixed one. But a part of me says that I will never understand enough to be able to take this test. Part of why I will never understand enough is because I will never take the time and put in the effort to learn this difficult material. I do put in the time to learn other things, like how to be a really good teacher! That learning is an ongoing process that I go through all the time, 180 days a year!

The decision I have made for myself when I decide to learn new things, is to learn new things that I think will be fun to learn. I think it is fun to learn a smattering of Japanese or how to use my Arduino. It is fun for me to learn to be a better teacher! But for some reason it is not “fun” to learn the physics to solve these complex problems. I wonder why that is? Expecially since I am a physics teacher because I love physics? I need to be at peace with myself over this decision, of not to learn this material. And I need to remember to ask for help. I did that today, over e-mail and twitter, asking physics PhDs to come to my aid and help me tutor my student. I hope to have at least two or three (if not five) G+ hangouts during which I and my student can discuss particular problems with someone who is better versed than I in these topics.

Good luck to my student, and to all students taking the semifinal exam this month. Only 20 will be selected for the training camp, only 5 will be the traveling team for the International Physics Olympiad in Copenhagen!


3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2013 11:09 AM

    I understand what you’re saying… the older I get, the more my interests vary — and I love learning, but I’m not nearly as thrilled with a challenging physics problem as I was even a few years ago… kind of a “been there, done that, I know with enough time I can solve it.” Instead, it’s more exciting to venture out into entirely new areas of learning — everything from creative writing to cooking to music. Good luck to you and your student in the semifinals!

  2. William Reed permalink
    April 10, 2013 9:55 PM

    I find this interesting because it may reflect what many of your students who *don’t* love physics, and are thus hard to motivate, are feeling. (To be fair, I don’t know anything about your students, and may be wrong- but if they’re anything like my 9th graders, some are much more difficult to motivate than others). I think this is one of the reasons it’s so important for science teachers to engage with challenging, high level science that may never come up in the classes we teach- the feeling of frustration helps us empathize with our most challenged students, in a way that’s not possible when we limit our thinking to the high school curriculum. Which isn’t to say you must learn this stuff- just that it’s good that you’re exposing yourself to it.

    • April 10, 2013 10:24 PM

      I am exposing myself to more advanced physics lately…One of my students is taking an online QM course and we worked through some problems today. Whew. It was fun, but we didn’t get very far!

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