A High School Physics Lesson

Miss T would love for all of her science lessons to be reading lessons, so today was a happy day for her. Her favorite science topic is physics, so Monday is usually Asimov day. Here is his book, which we used last year and this year:


I balked using this with Miss T at first, because Asimov is not shy about discussing the math, but after she eagerly picked it up and demanded Asimov be her teacher I couldn’t say no. (Miss T is a big fan of his Robot novels.) It has been amazing. Asimov masterfully and seamlessly blends math, history and science concepts in short but intense bites. She’s had little trouble understanding and articulating the chapters, and this was supposed to be the “challenging” physics choice. Last year we covered Motion, Sound and Heat. This year we are working on Light, Magnetism and Electricity. I don’t know if we’ll use the third volume.

While some might think Asimov’s science is “dated,” (the book was published in 1966) I believe that at the high school level this is more than adequate. In fact, Asimov does not give in to the temptation to delve into the more abstract physics that is so fashionable to discuss in the physics books marketed to the general reader today. He sticks to the basics of human experience with motion, matter and energy, which makes this volume vastly superior as a living physics text to anything written more recently. And the basics are anything but simple.

Last week, Miss T narrated about the Tyndall effect, and we were both surprised to learn that the sky is blue not because atmospheric particles reflect the color blue, but that the light excites them to emit the color blue. Also, a beam of light is ordinarily only visible through a colloidal suspension (such as milk) because the particles are just the right size. After narration, Miss T and I discuss what she will draw in her notebook and include in the caption. This is what she decided to do:


And here is this week’s notebook entry:


I’m sharing these so that no one looks at other teen’s beautifully done diagrams and pages filled with words and feels discouraged. While it is important, very important, to encourage your children to give their entries their best work, the value of regularly making a journal entry is not about the art lesson. Making a visual is very important in science, because if you can’t picture a phenomenon or a process, you can’t explain it. Entries should include some sort of diagram, with labels and an explanatory caption. We’re almost there. I’m making notebooking a priority for Miss T this year, not just with labs but also science reading.

Notebook aside, nothing quite compares to watching her bound up from her room after finishing her assigned reading (yes, at 16 she still bounds up the stairs) to ask me: “Did you know that there’s a Doppler Effect for light???” She proceeded to give me a 15 minute narration of the chapter, including the discovery and the nature of invisible light, how the red shift helps astronomers measure the motion of the stars, and why Doppler was wrong to think that reddish stars were moving away from us, and bluish stars towards us. A selection of comprehension questions in the back of a textbook chapter could not begin to capture what she remembered, neither could it generate the enthusiasm of a kid making her own discoveries.

A note about the math – most physics teachers will tell you that you can’t do physics without the math. For the most part, this is true. Many of the chapters on motion and force were math heavy, the optics chapters have not been. I have used a combination of resources for the math, one is Great Formulas Explained by Martin Betkas, and the other is Physics Classroom, which is a fairly complete website for teaching physics and can fill in any gaps if your student is planning on taking a physics SAT. One thing I have tried to teach Miss T is that the math tells a story. Math tells us how things change when you change variables like time, mass, energy, velocity and distance. We worked with formulas in a spreadsheet and entered different data and I asked her to look at the results and tell me the story. At first she was mystified by this, but over time she got the hang of it.


2 thoughts on “A High School Physics Lesson

  1. I wish I had known about this Asimov book sooner. My daughter is doing an Intro. to Physics course this year and it sounds like that book might have worked well. Do you think it could covered in about 36 weeks?


    • The book comes in 3 volumes, and as I’m doing an integrated course I spread one volume out over about 36 weeks. If you were doing physics alone you could do three readings per week and cover all the volumes in 36.


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