Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fantasy Curriculum: Physics is OK (for the most part)

My delusions of grandeur with my fantasy curriculum continue. Yesterday, I discussed how I would change the math part of the curriculum. Today, I'm tackling physics. If yesterday was a blindsided, no-holds-barred tackle, then today is more like a two-handed-touch tackle.

Physics really isn't a major issue for most ME curriculum. Probably, most programs have two physics classes, one on basic physics (equations of motion, etc) and another on electromagnetic theory and maybe optics. My basic physics class was ok but I would have liked to see the math stuff tied in a little more. For instance, yesterday I stated that I didn't get the relationship between derivatives (vel, accel, jerk, snap, etc) in math. I only heard about them in physics. I'd like to see that link strengthened significantly.

The bigger issue I had with basic physics was the EM theory part. Rather than rant and say all physics is terrible, I'm going to chalk that up to a terrible professor (RMP has literally 1.5 stars for ~140 ratings). Out of 100 students, there was a total of 1 physics major and my guess is this prof didn't like engineers.

Aside from the prof not appearing to care, EM theory can be taught from too high a level. I mean, do young engineers really care about the derivation of Maxwell's equations? No. That doesn't mean they're not important (they really are!). But that doesn't mean you should waste 4 classes with endless derivations to get 4 equations that are in every physics book.

This brings me to my only issue with physics. And it's basically the fundamental difference between physics and engineering. Physics is all about the journey to the answer and understanding those concepts that get you there (ie: endless pages of derivations). Engineering is all about using tools that are in a toolbox to solve a problem. The method and end results means two different things for engineers and physicists. Thus, there is some source of disconnect would could be improved.

If I explain it in higher terms, an Engineer with a 2% error away from their initial assumption would say "I'm good to 2%". However, a Physicist would back correct their initial assumption by 2% to reach the goal of 100%. In physics, it seems more about your initial hypothesis whereas in engineering, it's all about how far you are from you're desired target.

To me, it seems that engineers and physicists talk about the same things but there's a miscommunication. For engineers to really grasp physics concept though, physics needs to be explained how an engineer would think and then slowly build into more physics concepts. If you don't do that, you risk a complete miscommunication between both parties and the education level will decrease.

I'm not sure you'd make a complete overhaul to the physics concepts discussed, rather, the teaching style should be addressed. Maybe only seasoned Profs who knows the quirky differences between engineers and physics should teach it, or maybe someone totally green should do it to see if they can come up with something better. What do you think?


  1. When I took my basic 1 semester of physics for EE the prof introduced it with the mission statement of wanting to explain the difference between physicists and engineers. Not really a bad thing.

    The your second part might fit in better with EE for ME. Just like mechanics for EE is usually thought by someone from the ME department over here.

  2. I thought physics was pretty poorly organized in my undergrad. We had 2 terms of general introductory physics (common across engineering, and taught by Physics profs), then repeated any of the useful stuff as review in subsequent courses (MODS, dynamics - taken 1-2 years later and largely forgotten). I think Physics is something that's probably a good topic to customize to each discipline. The one department that was allowed to run their own curriculum split things in a way I thought was pretty useful - one intro class was essentially just statics, the other was Electricity, Magnetism, and Optics (and a bit of miscellaneous).