My two-week orientation with the physics department began this week. This program entails some getting acclimated to the program, the department, and the university at large, as well as our first free shot at the qualifying exam (more on that after I finish failing it tomorrow). However, the bulk of the time will be devoted to learning how to be an effective TA for labs and discussion sessions. The first part of the TA training has been to think about what the phrases “thinking like a physicist” and “problem solving” mean to us. In order to help me crystallize some of these thoughts, I have decided to blog about them.
Thinking Like a Physicist
We were told to ask our advisers their opinion on these topics when we met with them to discuss course selections for the upcoming semester. My adviser had some interesting ideas about “thinking like a physicist.” The main thing that he said is that he finds learning physics to be more personal than learning math. By this, he means that physics is done more by feel and concept than symbol manipulation, which he thinks is more emphasized in math. Because of this personal basis for physics, the instructor is very important, as the students try to emulate him when they set out to solve problems for themselves. The students must also work to go beyond simply solving the problem and make sure that they can extend the conceptual reach of the problem.
I agree with this idea to a certain extent. I do believe that a conceptual understanding of the system is the key in understanding a system. Simple “plugging and chugging” may get you the right answer, but this is useless if you don’t have an idea what this answer means. This is why physicists often employ the “limiting case” concept: if you can understand how the system behaves as certain parameters get very large or very small, then you go a long way to understanding how the system really works. I disagree, however, that math is very different in this regard. My best undergrad math teachers repeatedly emphasized the importance of understanding what was going on by visualization and drawing pictures of the situation, rather than depending on some formulaic “recipe” to spit out the right answer.
How Super Mario Saved the Princess
An important distinction made in our Instructor’s Handbook is the distinction between completing exercises and solving problems. I think that for my generation, a handy analogy can be drawn to video games.