Using Trade Books in an Introductory Physics Course
I regularly teach PHYS 1010: Elementary Physics, at Weber State University. I didn’t choose the course name; at your school, it might also be called Conceptual Physics or Descriptive Physics. Regardless, it is a physics course with no math prerequisite (and therefore very little math content), primarily taken by students to fulfill a General Education breadth requirement.
There are challenges for the instructor. Some students have profound difficulty with proportional reasoning. Others sign up for the course after taking an Advanced Placement calculus-based physics course in high school, specifically because they are looking for an easy course.
The standard texts are approachable and conversational but might also seem patronizing—at least they do to me. Typically, there are between 90 and 100 students in my course. What to do?
I want the course to provide a meaningful experience for all students, while being faithful to the catalog description and General Education mission by presenting a survey of topics in physics and physical science.
I’ve made my course reading-intensive, because I believe in the transformative power of reading in any discipline. To get an A in my course, students have to, among other requirements, read two trade books.
The first trade book is something I choose for the whole class to read together. Most commonly, I’ve used American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherman. It’s an excellent book, a Pulitzer Prize winner that I recommend to anyone. It’s also a 600-page (not counting notes and references) serious work, arguably the most scholarly biography of Oppenheimer to date.
It’s not a book a lot of my students would choose on their own. It includes many physics topics we talk about in the class and is a great springboard for discussing issues of science-and-society in the 20th century.
We read it in sections and take one day every other week from class as “book club day” to discuss a section of the book. Before we discuss the book, students take a short-answer reading quiz. If they don’t pass the reading quiz, they can come meet with me and, by discussing the book with me, convince me that they’ve done the reading.
The only real requirement is that they read the book.
In the in-class discussions, a different group of students participates enthusiastically as compared to a “regular” day of class. The discussions have been some of my most memorable days in the classroom in my 20-year career.
Once the students get over the “Yes, we are going to read this whole thing” on the first day of class, a surprising number enjoy it and I get more positive than negative comments on my evaluations about the reading.
I had one student tell me that she started reading again because of my class.
Beyond the book we read together, in order to get an A, students need to read another trade book from a list of ~10 that I provide.
Here is the list of books that my students currently have to choose from:
- Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
- Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich
- Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
- The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo
- The Sky is not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
- Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson
- The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars by Christopher Cokinos
- The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
Selections cover a variety of the people and issues from science in the last century and include a diverse group of authors and subjects. I break the class up into smaller groups for a separate book club discussion for each book in the last week of class.
Grades in my class are based on reaching benchmarks in various categories.
To get an A, a student needs to average 75% or better on my (physics) quizzes and tests and read both of the trade books. They get a B, but no better, if they don’t read the second book. They can’t do better than a C without doing the reading.
This all makes for a reasonable balance between making every student do something significant and giving every student a reasonable chance for a good grade.
The reading-intensive General Education science course has been as successful as anything I’ve tried in the classroom, in my obviously biased opinion. I love to talk about it with my colleagues.
Have you tried something similar with your students? Let us know in the comments!