Richard Muller, physics professor at UC-Berkeley and author of PHYSICS FOR FUTURE PRESIDENTS, gave a fascinating and enlightening keynote address at the AAPT Winter meeting (Feb. 4-8, 2012) on his course for non-science majors; and he was on a panel immediately afterward. 

 

He referred us to his website: http://www.muller.lbl.gov/. From there, you can read his preface to his course, which was what his talk was about.

  http://www.muller.lbl.gov/teaching/Physics10/PffP_textbook/PffP-00-TOC-Preface-5-27.htm

 

I quote from his preface:

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Knowledge of physics will help them judge, on their own, if the physicist is right.   Let me illustrate what can be taught by telling a short story that I share with my students in the first lecture.  It tells them what I want from them.

 

      Liz, a former student of my class, came to my office hour, eager to share a wonderful experience she had had a few days earlier. Her family had invited a physicist over for dinner, someone who worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  He regaled them through the dinner with his stories of controlled thermonuclear fusion, and its great future for the power needs of our country. According to Liz, the family sat in awe of this great man describing his great work.  Liz knew more about fusion than did her parents, because we had covered it in our class.

      There was a period of quiet admiration at the end. Finally Liz spoke up.  "Solar power has a future too," she said.

      "Ha!" the physicist laughed.  (He didn't mean to be patronizing, but this is a typical tone physicists affect.)  "If you want enough power just for California," he continued, "you'd have to plaster the whole state with solar cells!"

      Liz answered right back.  "No, you're wrong," she said.  "There is a gigawatt in a square kilometer of sunlight, and that's about the same as a nuclear power plant."

      Stunned silence from the physicist.  Liz said he frowned.  Finally he said, "Hmm.  Your numbers don't sound wrong.  Of course, present solar cells are only 15% efficient… but that's not a huge factor.  Hmm.  I'll have to check my numbers."

 

            YES!!  That's what I want my students to be able to do.  Not integrals, not roller-coaster calculations, not pontifications on the scientific method or the deep meaning of conservation of angular momentum. She was able to shut up an arrogant physicist who hadn't done his homework!  Liz hadn't just memorized facts.  She knew enough about the subject of energy that she could confidently present her case under duress when confronted by a supposed expert. Her performance is even more impressive when you recognize that solar power is only a tiny part of this course.  She remembered the important numbers because she had found them fascinating and important.  She hadn't just memorized them, but had thought about them and discussed them with her classmates.  They had become part of her, a part she could bring out and use when she needed them, even a year later.

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His goal is to motivate students by putting the most fascinating topics first. Energy is taught FIRST. He is skeptical about using the definition of energy as the ability to do work. “Energy is energy; it is all energy.” He doesn't like the term "types of energy" (i.e., kinetic, potential).  

 

If students believe something is important, they will learn. He teaches understanding, not facts. "You're going to win arguments because you understand ..." he tells students. "Know the numbers, know what is important, thus be empowered to challenge misinformation." "If this is wrong, HOW is it wrong?" he asks them.

 

Most important is to learn HOW TO LEARN, he said.

 

 

His course, Physics 10, is on YouTube. Search for Physics 10 Richard Muller. The first lecture is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ysbZ_j2xi0

David Hestenes wrote about it: “His course is about as good as a physics lecture can get. Note that all the examples concern rates and proportions that are accessible to grade 9. Teachers need a catalog of good and relevant examples such as he gives.”