Teaching Physics through Mysteries

(translated by an article published on Nòva – Il Sole 24 Ore; 8 February 2015 by Andrea Carobene) Physicists “have neglected to make order in their houses.” This is the start of the physics course made over 30 years ago at the Institute for the Didactic of Physics, University of Karlsruhe, Germany: a brave attempt to rethink teaching physics by eliminating outdated ideas and using analogies to simplify learning. German researchers are aware that modern textbooks continue to resemble those of the last century: new discoveries are included as appendices of classical physics and the synthesis of old and new is completely absent. It is necessary then to first “make order” to teach this science effectively. “We face a terrible situation: at the beginning of schooling, students are very attracted to physics and the study of phenomena such as light, heat and sound. But, unfortunately, after these concepts are presented to them in school, their interest decreases rapidly. The teaching of physics seems to dismiss students.” Said Marco Giliberti from the University of Milan. “It’s a motivation problem: we need to convey the idea that physics is not just technique and formalism. The inclined plane or oscillations of a pendulum alone do not raise questions that fascinate. People are interested in questions about the Universe or the meaning of things. The themes of classical physics are interesting, but we need to explain why they help tackle the most fascinating questions. Otherwise, it’s like trying to teach music without ever listening to a symphony, and showing only the pentagram.” In Italy, there are several attempts at different strategies to improve the teaching of physics. The Universities of Turin and Pavia have created programs for high schools that explain quantum physics with Feynman’s diagrams, the Udine approach focuses on the use of mathematical operators used in quantum physics, while the Milan program teaches physics starting with experiments performed in the 20th century. The University of Milan is also one of the thirteen partners of the European project TEMI (Teaching Enquiry with Mysteries Incorporated): an EU program coordinated by the University of London, that aims to transform teaching by providing new tools to teachers to engage students. As explained by Marina Carpineti, the goal is “to give birth to a question through a mystery to solve, or something that gives emotion.” Within the TEMI framework, mysteries are explored by analyzing several possible explanations, and the final solutions are then verified together. The mysteries proposed range from building a castle with hydrophobic sand, which does not get wet, to the disappearance of a rod in a glass beaker. Giliberti and Carpineti, with their colleague Nicola Ludwig, since 2004 present the “Show of Physics” to schools across Italy. It is a series of theatre plays attended by about 100,000 people to date. Giliberti comments, “we ask questions, we show objects, we perform experiments, but we give the public only little explanation because the goal is to create emotions and associate with physics, sensations and ideas that give joy.” During the show, the authors use lasers, disperse light with a prism, or play with mirrors with the objective of creating surprise and fascinating the audience. The experience of the show of physics has been fully incorporated into the TEMI program, Carpineti explains. “The students come home with questions that their professors can then answer.” But it is not so easy to rethink teaching. The problems are not restricted to the excess time required to follow participatory teaching, and also concern theoretical questions. “Making order” implies reviewing conceptual schemes established. In February 2013, the German Society of Physics started a hard debate with the University of Karlsruhe, pointing out, more than thirty years after the spread of the first texts, some supposed theoretical errors. The discussion is still open, but what we must not lose sight of is the need to find new ways to teach physics so that students do not get bored. It happens that students feel passionate physics after seeing the show at the University of Milan, and often improve their scores from a 4 to a 7 in their report card. A result probably as important as the discovery of a new theorem.