Physics for Future Presidents

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 18, 2012

Richard Muller gave one of the plenaries at the AAPT Winter Meeting, and it was one of the more useful sessions of the conference for me.  Richard Muller is the teacher of an influential course at UC Berkeley called Physics and Technology for Future Presidents: An Introduction to the Essential Physics Every World Leader Needs to Know, which teaches the essential science needed to understand contemporary issues.  The link above will take you the text that can be used in such a course, including a teachers’ solution manual.

On Richard Muller’s website, he says:

Want to teach this course at your university? The course is dramatically different from the traditional “Physics for Poets” approach. Many people who have tried it have discovered that it is much more fun for both the students and the professor. Nothing excites a student more than the discovery that he/she is learning something important.

The textbook and teacher’s solution manual (complete with a section on recommended pedagogy) is now available from Princeton University Press. The text has been named Physics and Technology for Future Presidents to distinguish it from the popular book Physics for Future Presidents and from the earlier “custom” drafts (which were in black and white and unedited except by the author).

His website has all sorts of useful things, such as webcasts of his lectures, the syllabus, past homeworks and exams.  I am going to be mining this stuff for my summer non-majors Light and Color course!

I really liked this course approach because of the focus on creating a “need to know” about something, and on critical thinking.  He tells his students:

If you walk out of this class saying, “Why do I need to know that?” then that’s my fault, not yours.

What a great framing.  And what I particularly liked about this approach was that he started with that motivation in his classes.

So, think about how we usually teach radiation.  We build up from talking about alpha gamma and beta rays, discussing what a field is, and how it relates to visible (light) radiation.  We start with the fundamentals, and build from there.

Richard Muller flips this.  Start with things they’re familiar with and they care about.  Start, instead, with the fact that we’re all radioactive.  Start with Fukushima.  Then they see the relevance, and are curious to hear how this works.

Another thing I liked was his focus on writing.  We don’t do much writing in our physics classes, but writing is something that’s familiar (or should be familiar) to a lot of non-majors, and gives a chance to discover a personal connection or interest.  Dr. Muller finds that his students like writing, and it’s good for them to have additional practice.  So, he has his students write an essay every week.  How does he grade all those?  He uses a really simple 0-3 system:  “0” if they write nothing.  A “2” is the default grade.  But then students get a “1” if it’s trash, and a “3” if it’s really excellent.  Nice.




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