Conceptual Physics:  A Curriculum
by: Keri Garver


We are all forced to interact with the physical world around us daily. When we not only observe, but also understand the rules of nature that govern our physical world we are more fulfilled and well-rounded individuals. Traditional physics classes often alienate students with difficult mathematical derivations and computations. While the rules of nature can often be described mathematically, it is not the only way to describe them. Conceptual Physics emphasizes learning the fundamental principles of nature from which concepts can be derived. Mathematics is not necessary to understand that energy can neither be created nor destroyed--which is, in fact, one of the fundamentals of physics. In reality, the basic laws and rules, if understood, are what students use for the rest of their lives by applying them to myriad situations. Therefore, it is the goal of Conceptual Physics to facilitate students understanding of the rules of nature by learning their foundations, not by learning their mathematical derivations.

In addition, physics is the basic science. It is the foundation for biology, chemistry, geology, and all other sciences. Therefore, what one learns in Conceptual Physics will be the basis on which all of one’s knowledge from the disciplines of science builds.

I intend to equip my high school physics students with a conceptual base of physical knowledge. From this base they can predict, control, calculate, measure, and observe their interactions with the physical world around them on a daily basis. This conceptual base will also foster their critical and analytical thinking for use throughout their lifetime.

  Conceptual Physics should be a full year class for junior or senior level high school students. For this class to be truly conceptual the laboratory experience is integral. Since high school classes are generally 45 minutes to an hour, one experiment may take two full class meetings. In addition, part of one class meeting prior to students conducting an experiment must be spent demonstrating the proper set-up and implementation for the students. And since each unit has at least one experiment, limiting the course to one semester would seriously inhibit complete understanding of the fundamental concepts due to a breakdown of the interdependent relationship between lecture and laboratory. Therefore, I do not feel the length of the course can be manipulated.

The order of the units within the course is not flexible, either. The units are where they are in the sequence due to the increase in complexity and sophistication as the year progresses. For example, the first unit, About Science, is a foundation for all subsequent units; hence it must be the first unit. Each unit is a prerequisite for the following units. For the course itself the only prerequisite is basic math since it is based on concepts, not complex mathematical computations.

In fact, what students have been taught and particularly the way they have been taught in other disciplines may cause some confusion for them in approaching science in a non-mathematical way. Most students are used to black and white—right or wrong—approaches to science and math. It is imperative that the teacher creates an environment that emphasizes new ideas or innovative ways to approach old ideas for a paradigm shift to occur. One effective way to foster such an environment for change is having students formulate their own theories before being taught the "correct" theory. Students are more likely to reevaluate their concept structures if they are consciously committed to their personal beliefs before learning the "correct" theory or witnessing the actual results (i.e. in an experiment). Likewise, students are more likely to grasp a concept if it is presented in a way that it is personally relevant to the students. In other words, present the phenomena as it occurs in nature—as the students have already observed for themselves—before it is presented in terms of a principle or law. Numerous examples are given in current conceptual physics textbooks and manuals.

I have based my course on the book Conceptual Physics by Paul Hewitt. I strongly recommend using a conceptual as opposed to a traditional text. If you are forced to use a traditional text be wary that those textbooks do not explain concepts in detail, but, instead, hope the math will do that for them, which is not often the case. Therefore, you must constantly stray from the book in lecture to emphasize the principles in words, not numbers. Laboratory Manual in Conceptual Physics by Bill Tillery is an excellent source for preparing experiments. Another good laboratory reference is The Phenomena of Physics: A Conceptual Laboratory Manual by Karen Johnston and Cecil Shugart. I must reiterate that the laboratory experience is an integral part of learning physics conceptually. By means of a close partnership between lecture and laboratory, this course attempts to answer the following question: What fundamental concepts of physics do we need to know to predict, control, calculate, measure, and observe our interactions with the rules of nature in the physical world?

Intended Learning Outcomes
Course Outline

Unit I:  About Science
Unit II:  Mechanics
Unit III:  Properties of Matter
Unit IV:  Heat
Unit V:  Sound
Unit VI:  Electricity and Magnetism
Unit VII:  Light
Unit VIII:  Atomic and Nuclear Physics
Unit IX:  Relativity Each unit includes an introduction, ILOs, instructional foci, teaching strategies, and special notes
    Includes general instructional objectives
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