Synopsis: A force by any other name…

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Illustration: Alan Stonebraker

“Force,” ontology, and language

David T. Brookes and Eugenia Etkina

Published June 25, 2009

Students often have difficulty with a number of basic physics concepts. For example, many students will say that a constant force is required to keep a body moving at a constant velocity. Since these perceptions are often grounded in students’ everyday experiences, they can be difficult to change. On the other hand, when students are asked to explain “force” they often give inconsistent answers, suggesting that their thought process does vary with the context of the question.

In an effort to unify aspects of these two observations, David Brookes, a post-doc at the University of Illinois, and Eugenia Etkina, a professor at Rutgers University, both in the US, present a study in Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research on the similarities in the ways physicists and students reason about concepts in physics. This is in contrast to previous studies that have emphasized the ways in which experts and novices think differently.

Using research methods more commonly seen in the fields of linguistics and cognitive science, Brookes and Etkina suggest that the well-documented difficulties students have with many concepts in physics can arise from their use and interpretation of language as well as their physical experiences and the interplay between the two. Students may be trying to redefine and categorize the meaning of formal scientific concepts in terms that are already familiar to them—a process remarkably similar to that engaged in by physicists since the time of the ancient Greeks.

Brookes and Etkina’s paper provides a nice exposure to previous research on the misconceptions of force and extends upon it in interesting ways. The work also points out how critical it is that teachers carefully consider their words and how students might interpret them. – Robert Beichner

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