We weren't happy with our curriculum, so we threw out the textbook. This is the result.
After years of teaching more or less traditional introductory physics courses, we found ourselves increasingly dissatisfied with our curriculum. Although efforts were made to use research-based pedagogy (i.e. minimizing lectures and spending the majority of class time on inquiry-based activities or small group problem solving), the content and organizational framework of our introductory physics courses was similar to that laid out in most introductory textbooks. That is, our units were named for fundamental principles like forces, energy, momentum, etc. and practice problems involved primarily mechanical systems like blocks on ramps and masses on strings.
Year after year, these examples failed to engage our students to the degree we would like. Organizing physics content around fundamental principles makes sense to a physicist, but the power of viewing the world through this lens is not obvious to the average first year physics student. Also, we felt that students were not appreciating the underlying scientific practice that connects all the chapters, that is constructing mathematical models of real world systems. All of these factors led us to write the curriculum you find here.
This problem was particularly acute in our introductory courses for non-majors (the algebra-based introductory courses), which were taken primarily by pre-health students and/or students fulfilling their general education science requirements. We felt that we could design more engaging introductory courses if we could make meaningful connections between physics and real world topics or problems that they were interested in. We also wanted students to leave the class with an understanding of physics as a discipline that builds mathematical models to predict the behavior of systems, rather than a set of disconnected equations to be memorized.
To achieve these goals, we completely rethought the way we approached the content of the course. The first change we made was to stop using a textbook. We wanted to be able to cover topics in an order that made sense to students. The courses have been restructured so the content is presented through a series of five units per semester, each of which is structured around a particular problem or question that can be studied using mathematical modeling. In each unit, students learn the physics content necessary to explore the problem while developing their scientific modeling skills. This means that the topics are not necessarily introduced in the order you find them in a standard introductory physics course.
For example, the unit on designing a solar powered lighting system includes the electromagnetic spectrum, photoelectric effect, blackbody radiation, and series and parallel circuits; topics that are all covered in a typical intro course, but usually not together. Each unit concludes with a project in which the students apply their newfound understanding of physics and test their mathematical models.
While in the midst of the course development process described above, we searched for resources, but found a lack of high quality curricula available for introductory physics courses at the high school and college level beyond traditional textbooks. This led us to begin writing short, focused readings for the students that would take the place of the textbook. The result is a Student Reader & Lab Manual for each of the modules (units) in our curriculum.
We also found that many of our colleagues were interested in the project, and wanted to use the lesson plans we had developed. The Teacher’s Guide to accompany each module includes solutions to tutorials, examples of student work, and pedagogical notes. Our book is different from a traditional text in that it emphasizes model-based inquiry and critical thinking over factual content knowledge. Mathematical modeling is the primary theme that runs throughout the course, and students are engaged in building models to explore relevant problems in science, technology, and/or society.
We hope that you find the curriculum useful in your physics classes!
-Rachael & Brian