Our first class was based on the idea that physical quantities and the relationships between them (equations) can be represented in physical movement, as well as in symbolic form. This is based on some of Prof. Burgasser’s work exploring physical communication of physical concepts, which itself is rooted in research showing that we learn when we use our bodies.
First, we all did a pre-assessment quiz to get on minds engaged on equations and physics symbols. Many of the equations in particular had not been seen before. We then did a warm-up led by Prof. Patricia Rincon from the Theatre & Dance Dept. to get our bodies engaged, by using random movements, exploring scale, height and the space between us, negotiating tight interactions, and then mapping on and with our bodies. There was a great sense of “molecular motion” and gas laws as we moved in and out of proximity.
We then got into modeling physics quantities by exploring together a few basic ones: mass, velocity and momentum. Movements could be small or fill the space, and some had to be accompanied with sounds. This was very free-form; there weren’t any restrictions to actual “match” the physical quantity, but to internalize what these quantities mean and act and vocalize accordingly.
Exercise 1: Physical Quantities
With our minds, bodies and creativity engaged, the students were set loose in groups of three to model three physical quantities, chosen randomly from sets of concrete mechanical (distance, displacement, time, wavelength, frequency, acceleration, angular speed, weight), abstract mechanical (force, energy, work, torque, angular momentum, moment of inertia, potential energy, coefficient of friction) and abstract non-mechanical quantities (charge, current, magnetic field strength, electrical field strength, electrical/magnetic dipole moment, spin). After 15 min, we came together to demonstrate our movements, guess the quantity being modeled (only 2/6 were guessed correctly!) and discuss the process behind choices made in movement and vocals:
- Group 1 modeled time by walking through the three stages of life (baby, adult, elderly)
- Group 2 modeled weight by miming the lifting of heavy weights
- Group 1 modeled current as the running of the bulls (charge!)
- Group 2 modeled magnetic field as a combination of compass and magnetic loops (plus buzzing for interference)
- Group 1 modeled density by starting as a compact mass and “exploding out” into a volume
- Group 2 modeled angular momentum by one person twirling two dance partners
In discussion of process, students described how they used literal mappings (lifting weight), modeling a common illustration of an abstract quantity (magnetic field lines), using alternate definitions of the words (charge) and breaking down quantities into constituent parts (density as mass over volume). Importantly, all of these quantities were placed into a human context.
Exercise 2: Physics Equations
Next, the students paired off and were randomly assigned the equations: E = mc2, ΔxΔp > h/2, and E = ½ mv2, . Again, they were given 15 min to express the quantities and the relationships that bridge them (multiplication, fraction, equal/greater than). They also now had to model numbers and physical constants. We came together for another round demonstration and discussion of process.
- Group 1 modeled E = mc2 as mass and energy coming together through light
- Group 2 modeled E = ½ mv2 by cutting each other in half and only only one side to move
- Group 3 modeled ΔxΔp > h/2 through a game of Marco Polo, but also expressing how one side is greater than the other
Some real interesting ideas came out in these: representing fractions as fractions of our selves (kinetic energy), physical constants as something that are found (Planck’s constant in ΔxΔp > h/2), and the difference between equality as equivalent (E = mc2) to a relationship (E = ½ mv2) and the implication as expressed through social interaction of inequality (ΔxΔp > h/2).
We closed with a post-assessment: What did you learn? and What surprised you? The responses reflected new insights into well-trodden physics and that we can value non-expertise in learning.
“That an equation can be re-ordered in multiple ways!”
“Something that surprised me was the fact that I have only looked at equations as a tool to user to get a certain quantity, like force or energy, but I never thought of why or how for example does mass times the speed of light squared equate to energy.”
“I learned today that most people tend to learn more by using your body”
“I learned about the uncertainty principle through a game of Marco Polo”
“How helpful someone who has little physics background was in thinking about these concepts”
“What surprised me the most was the fact that I was able to think creatively and express myself with concepts that are often seen as concrete or solid”
“What surprised/amazed me was being able to communicate using only our bodies! Super awesome! In a way, really helps to understand the physical meaning of the quantities and equations at a much deeper level than you normally would.”