Home Study Companion: Physics
If you have been asking, “When are we ever going to use this?,” you are about to find the answer. Pretty much all of highschool level math, algebra through calculus, was invented in order to do physics!
Teaching physics is different from teaching mathematics courses. Students come into a physics course for the first time with a fairly complete set of intuitions about how the world works that has been built up from ordinary life experiences. They can throw and catch a ball, cross the street without getting hit by a car, and intuitively judge the consequences of their actions. However, the intuitive foundations of their understandings are typically inadequate when it comes to understanding phenomena beyond their common experiences.
Teaching physics is therefore not a matter of writing on a blank slate. Old intuitions must be unlearned and replaced with new intuitions. Preexisting ideas must be challenged with new experiences that push old intuitions to the breaking point so a new foundation can be laid. New intuitions can then be built on this new foundation. Physics at the level of this course is called “Newtonian Physics” because we will be introducing the conceptual framework laid down by Isaac Newton.
Physics requires a lab component because the task is to understand the physical world, not just the sanitized, idealized world of textbook problems and computer simulations. Mere textbook learning does not bring the student into contact with the complexities of the real world: measurement uncertainties, and simplifying assumptions that are invariably made to be able to describe the real world mathematically. Simulations can be helpful, at times, but ultimately they cannot substitute for direct experience of the real world, where friction and air resistance cannot be totally eliminated, springs sometimes stretch beyond their elastic limits, and electric circuits sometimes overheat. Students need to grapple with the real world and experience the tremendous explanatory power of mathematics, along with a sense of its limitations. The ultimate outcome is a new pair of eyes for seeing the world.
One challenge for a homeschool physics course is to provide these experiences without the facilities of a formal physics lab. To meet this need this course structures the “lab” component as “projects.” Hands-on experiences and literal “play” with equipment (physics toys!) is a necessary precursor to analysis. However we will bring quantitative questions to the table at every turn. A phrase I once heard that encapsulates our goal is “empowered curiosity.”
Because of the lab component there needs to be a willingness to invest in the tools and materials for these projects. I have tried to keep the costs as low as possible, and many of the tools and materials are free or very low cost. Pricier items can be considered optional, if you are on a tight budget.
Physics is the most fundamental of the sciences but it is also the most mathematical. (Pretty much all of highschool level math, through calculus, was invented in order to do physics!) This introductory course is at a non-calculus level but we will make heavy use of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. To be successful the student should have completed at least the Algebra 2 / Trigonometry course and preferably be continuing with Precalculus (or Calculus, as appropriate) alongside Physics. Physics will help answer the age-old question, “When are we ever going to use this?” Physics and mathematics are not the same, but they are intimately related.