Inquiry-based Education: Physics by Inquiry (Physics 105)

Spring Semester, Monday and Wednesday 12.00 pm – 1.50 pm, B&L407
Frank L. H. Wolfs

The goal of Physics by Inquiry is to provide the students with direct experience in the process of science. The design of this course was based on the belief that science can not be learned by reading, listening, memorizing and problem solving, but requires active mental engagement. Although most science courses for science majors are supplemented with required labs, even in those courses active engagement is rather limited. In most of our current science courses for non-science majors, the laboratory component is missing, and these courses often fail to provide the students with a scientific intuition and an appreciation for the scientific process.

Physics by Inquiry focuses on the scientific method. The students start from their own observations, develop basic scientific concepts, use and interpret different forms of scientific representations, and construct explanatory models with predictive capabilities. The students develop scientific reasoning skills and gain experience in relating scientific concepts, representations, and models to real-world phenomena. By providing a direct exposure to the scientific process, we hope to provide the students with a solid foundation for scientific literacy. Topics that are covered in this course are physics and astronomy.
To achieve the goal of active involvement, the course is taught in a computer equipped classroom in which each student (or pair of students) has access to a computer and is able to carry out data analysis during lectures. Simple experiments are carried out by each student individually. More sophisticated experiments are carried out by the instructor, and the data collected are available to each student via the network. For example, complicated two dimensional motion are videotaped and digitized for immediate analysis by the students.

Figure 1. Picture of the computerized classroom (B&L 407) constructed for the Physics by Inquiry course.

The funds required for the computer equipment for the computerized were provided by the University. Figure 1 shows a photograph of the classroom (B&L 407) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, which was constructed for the Physics by Inquiry course. Figures 2 and 3 show pictures of some of the Physics by Inquiry students at work during the lecture period. Most of the lecture period is devoted to hands-on experiments which focus on various aspects of the scientific method. The students shown in Figures 2 and 3 are working on an experiment in which they are asked to carry out a motion in front of a motion sensor that describes the curve shown on their computer screen. This experiment is used to gain experience with scientific graphics, and with graphing motion in particular.
Some of the experiments carried out by the Physics by Inquiry students were carried out outside the classroom. Examples, include the following:

Figure 2. Physics by Inquiry students hard at work in B&L 407.

Figure 3. Physics by Inquiry students hard a work in B&L 407, trying to carry out a motion in front of a motion sensor that is shown on a graph on their computer screen.

Figure 4. Inelastic collision between 2 Physics by Inquiry teaching assistants, using full soda cans as bumpers.
Figure 5. Results of an inelastic collision between two Physics by Inquiry students. The deformation of each can was measured in order to determine the correlation between deformation and loss of kinetic energy.

Figure 6. The best performing Physics by Inquiry rocket.
Figure 7. One of the many other rockets designed and build by the Physics by Inquiry students.

Figure 8. Physics by Inquiry rocket survives a hard landing.
Figure 9. Two Physics by Inquiry student admire the way their rocket landed after reaching a height of 200 ft.

© Frank L. H. Wolfs, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627, USA

Last updated on Thursday, March 8, 2001 16:42