Conceptual Understanding in Introductory Physics III: Interpreting Physical Quantities

This series continues with a question which, I hope, causes readers and students to reflect on something that is frequently omitted from traditional introductory physics courses. I contend that words are all we have to convey conceptual understanding in physics or any other topic. Yet, in science courses, and especially in physics courses, we tend to overlook the deep meanings of the terms we use and expect students to use. The mantra “Shut up and calculate!” comes to mind. Problem solving and calculation are important, but I argue they are not at the heart of physics. Without deep understanding of what it all means, meaningful problem solving can’t happen. We should periodically assess students’ understanding of what terms really mean by just asking them. It doesn’t get any more straightforward.

So without further ado, here is the third question in this series.

Using only words (no mathematical symbols, equations, numbers, or textbook definitions), articulate the most fundamental meaning of each of the following physical quantities: position, velocity, mass, momentum, force, energy, and angular momentum, gravitational field, electric charge, electric field, magnetic field. Try very hard to restrict yourself to one complete sentence for each quantity.

Note that this question can be asked at any time during the course, and it need not cover only the terms I include here. I chose these because they, in my opinion, are probably the most fundamental.


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