Extending the Role of Computation in Introductory Mechanics

Most physics instructors are familiar with a standard course. However, many may be unfamiliar with the M&I course including why topics are reorganized and why the course introduces the microscopic view of matter. A review of the text may aid in understanding these difference but some find a few papers discussing these issues shorter. Interested parties are directed to these resources:

  • Chabay, R. W., & Sherwood, B. A. Bringing atoms into first-year physics. American Journal of Physics, 67: 1045-1050 (1999).
  • Chabay, R. W. & Sherwood, B. A. Modern mechanics. American Journal of Physics 72, 439-445 (2004).
  • Chabay, R. W. & Sherwood, B. A. Restructuring the introductory electricity and magnetism course. American Journal of Physics 74, 329-336 (2006).
  • Chabay, R. & Sherwood, B. A. Computational physics in the introductory calculus-based course. American Journal of Physics, 76 (4&5), pp. 307-313 (2008).

All of these articles are available in pdf format onĀ this page.

One of the most unique aspects of this course is the computational component. Students learn to read, write, and utilize python code that can perform dynamical calculations and numerical integrations. In conjunction with the python base, students use the vPython module which allows them to display visual elements, like spheres, boxes and arrows. By updating various attributes of these elements, students model a dynamical system that evolves in time.

Recently, work has begun on making VPython homework sets and training materials that utilize code written in the lab. That is, students change conditions in and perform calculations using their python code to model different systems. Using proper summative evaluations, the group aims to improve qualitative student knowledge of force and motion. Other sets will be developed for energy, angular momentum, electromagnetic fields, etc.