Teaching Tips

Physics and Math go hand in hand

Although freshman physics focuses on concepts, it reinforces math content taught in 9th grade math classes. Thus student success in Freshman Physics or Physical Science requires coordination between science and mathematics teachers. However, the disciplines of math and science are often considered to be quite different in nature.

Science is viewed as complex and “messy” as students try to make sense of measurement data from lab experiments. Math is viewed as straightforward and “elegant,” a tool for solving problems in a step-by-step fashion.
In science, problems are often set in a real-world context, metric units are commonplace, and “carrying through units” is emphasized. In math, exercises are often devoid of a problem context and thus “solutions” do not require units at all; in application problems, standard (U.S.) units are customary, but ultimately students and teachers may ignore units when solving problems.
Calculators are largely required in science but sometimes forbidden in math classrooms.

Do science and math teachers send “mixed messages” to students? During the A TIME for Physics First summer academies, math and science teachers recommended that they must work in a coordinated effort to improve student learning.

Here are the math skills used in freshman physics.
Algebra: Literal equations • Linear and quadratic functions • Graphing functions • Solving systems of equations
Geometry: Area • Tangent lines • Similarity • Transformational geometry
Measurement: Selecting appropriate units • Unit conversion
Number and Operation: Exponents • Include more decimal numbers in examples and problems • Ratio and proportion
Data Analysis and Probability: Display data • Linear regression

Article written by James Tarr, University of Missouri, Columbia, originally published in the A TIME for Physics First Newsletter, August 2007.