Physics by Inquiry

Lillian McDermott
University of Washington

Physics by Inquiry is a set of laboratory-based modules that provide a step-by-step introduction to physics and the physical sciences. Through in-depth study of simple physical systems and their interactions, students gain direct experience with the process of science. Starting from their own observations, students develop basic physical concepts, use and interpret different forms of scientific representations, and construct explanatory models with predictive capability. All the modules have been explicitly designed to develop scientific reasoning skills and to provide practice in relating scientific concepts, representations, and models to real world phenomena.

Physics by Inquiry consists of three volumes. The first two are subtitled: An introduction to physics and the physical sciences. Volume I develops fundamental concepts and basic reasoning skills essential for the physical sciences. The material included in Volume II provides a foundation for the study of introductory physics. With the exception of Electromagnets and Astronomy by Sight, Volumes I and II can be used independently. Volume III, which is subtitled: An introduction to physics, introduces additional topics from the standard introductory course.

Physics by Inquiry is not meant to be passively read. The modules do not provide all the information and reasoning included in a conventional text. There are gaps that must be bridged by the student. The process of science cannot be learned by reading, listening, memorizing, or problem-solving. Effective learning requires active mental engagement.

The modules contain narrative, experiments and exercises, and supplementary problems. As the course progresses, student notebooks become an important resource.

The narrative includes statements of fact, definitions, and examples of the kind of reasoning that is expected of students.

Experiments and exercises
Experiments and exercises are inset from the narrative. They should be done as they are encountered.

Supplementary problems
A collection of problems at the end of each module provides additional practice in applying physical concepts and scientific reasoning skills.

Student notebooks
Students maintain notebooks in which they record observations, do exercises and problems, and reflect on how their understanding is evolving. In this way, they create an indispensable reference that complements the text and serves as an individualized study guide.

Physics by Inquiry has been designed for courses in which the primary emphasis is on discovering rather than on memorizing and in which teaching is by questioning rather than by telling. Such a course allows time for open-ended investigations, dialogues between the instructor and individual students, and small group discussions. A major goal is to help students think of physics not as an established body of knowledge, but rather as an active process of inquiry in which they can participate.

The modules are particularly appropriate for preparing preservice and inservice K-12 teachers to teach science as a process of inquiry. They can also be used to help underprepared students succeed in the mainstream science courses that are the gateway to majors in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. For these student populations, as well as for those in the liberal arts, the curriculum helps establish a sound foundation for the building of scientific literacy.

Physics by Inquiry has an accompanying Instructor' s Guide for college and university faculty. It has several purposes: to suggest how the materials can be most effectively used with different student populations, to help the instructor anticipate student difficulties, to provide information about the equipment, to describe the demonstrations referred to in the text, and to convey the purpose of unusual exercises and experiments.