What do students make of physics and maths…

Last week I did my first interview with students regarding a small research project I’m doing – looking at the ways that students percieve the relationship between physics and maths and how similar they are in their thinking to expert physicists.

It was an interesting interview. I had four students, and their was quite a bit of discussion going on between them. I haven’t done a full analysis of what they said yet – that takes a while for a 35minute interview – the first part is getting an accurate transcript of what was said. When I went through university, transcribing voice recordings wasn’t part of a physics degree, so it’s taking me a while, but I’ll get there eventually. (I don’t have the budget available to farm this job onto someone else.)

But it seems that the group I talked to has a very mature view of the links between physics and maths, by which I mean the views of the students  seemed to be mostly well-aligned with those of practising physicists (I’ve already done this latter group.) An obvious parallel to look at is the work of Gire, Jones and Price, which showed that students’ views on the nature of physics in general were  somewhat below those of practising physicists (not really surprising), but that physics students had a much more mature view than engineering students. Will it be similar in the specific case of the maths and physics links? I’ll have to wait and see. What I find most interesting about the Gire et al paper, is that the beliefs of the physics students about physics basically didn’t change for their first three years – it was only when they hit fourth year / graduate level that it suddenly lept upwards to come close to that of practising physicists.   Reference: E. Gire, B. Jones and E. Price. Characterizing the epistemological development of physics majors. (2009) Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 5, 010103.

One obvious outcome from this interview group was the fairly limited idea that the students had of the career paths that their study could take them to. They had chosen their subjects because they liked them, or though they would like them, without much regard to what would happen after university.  An area that we can help with as lecturers, perhaps.

 Finally, I can’t resist putting this snippet of conversation in, particularly since I was mathematician-bashing in my last entry.

Student:  I reckon you can learn the parts, and get how it works [i.e. the maths], but you can’t fully understand it until you see how it works in real life [i.e. the physics]

Me: Do you think a hardened mathematician would disagree with you there?

Student: Yeah, but they’d be missing out.


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