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Autumn 2003 | Volume 26, Number 4 | Campus
National Science Foundation Awards $90,000 Grant to SPU Physics Department

a box across the floor, you will need to keep pushing it, or it will stop. This sort of everyday life experience might lead one to generalize that force is needed to keep an object in motion. “But, of course, that is completely incorrect,” points out Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Physics Stamatis Vokos. “In outer space, an object will keep on going unless stopped.”

Since students are not blank slates, says Vokos, they often come to physics with false assumptions about the way objects interact. “We all know a lot of physics informally, and a lot of what we ‘know’ is wrong.”

To help students overcome common hurdles in physics, Vokos and other SPU professors — including John Lindberg, Lane Seeley and Brian Gill — sought and won a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The two-year “Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Grant,” which began September 1, 2003, is designed to help professors improve their methods of teaching in introductory physics courses at SPU. Funds will be used for laboratory equipment, summer salaries, graduate-student salaries, student-assistant stipends and professional travel.

Poised to benefit from the grant are undergraduate students taking introductory and advanced physics courses, as well as graduate students in the field of education. “In recent years,” Vokos says, “physics has become a course taught even in elementary grades, so teachers need to know how to lead young students in developing a deep conceptual understanding of physics. They do this by challenging students with experiments that disprove what they thought they knew, while providing supporting evidence for what they thought was wrong.”

The box example is one of the simplest that students can try out in labs. After writing down their assumptions, students then race chunks of dry ice across a horizontal blackboard to show that friction, an “unseen” force, is what slows down an object. They discover through lab work that the laws of physics aren’t always intuitive. “It’s a God-given gift,” says Vokos, “to understand the world as it is.”

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