The Physics Question

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The Physics Question

Postby Sabina » Fri Feb 12, 2010 11:09 am

This story is a little longer, but it is worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.

__4__

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed a perfect score. The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I read the examination question: "SHOW HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO DETERMINE THE HEIGHT OF A TALL BUILDING WITH THE AID OF A BAROMETER." The student had answered, "Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building."

The student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly! On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course and to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this.
I suggested that the student have another try. I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said he had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on.

In the next minute, he dashed off his answer which read: "Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x=0.5*a*t^^2, calculate the height of the building." At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit.

While leaving my colleague's office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

"Well," said the student, "there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.

"Fine," I said, "and others?"

"Yes," said the student, "there is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units."

"A very direct method."

"Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated." "On this same tact, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession". "Finally," he concluded, "there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best," he said, "is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent's door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: 'Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer."

At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question.

He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.


__4__
"Whether You believe you can, or you can't, you are right."
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Re: The Physics Question

Postby Ryan » Fri Feb 12, 2010 11:28 am

Ha! Nice story!

My physics teacher in high school was cool. When he gave a home work assignment he just checked to see if you did it. He would walk down the aisle with the grade book. If you answered every question you got a 100. If you didn't even try to do it you got a 0. Then when it came to tests the more correct answers you could give the more points you would get. Of course if you give any extra answers and they were wrong, they would count against your score. Anyway, he was one of my favorite teachers.
[R] If you don't understand something I said or why I said it... ask me.
If you don't want to understand something I said or why I said it... tell me.
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Prof. Elke Renner

Postby Sabina » Fri Feb 12, 2010 11:59 am

That is very cool... that's how it should be.

My German and history teacher, Prof. Elke Renner, was a beautifully original character as well.

For example, she didn't like the usual way of sitting in a classroom, so we would have to rearrange the desks to be in an almost circle, so we could all see each other. When you think about it, just this one small change makes you wonder. You realize it's different from the norm, you see its benefits, so you start wondering... what else should change? What else can be optimized?

Then, as a history teacher she didn't much care for history in general, that is to say, she didn't teach by the book. She instead used her time with us to teach us about all the injustice in the world.
Anyone can just read books.. I guess that was her motto, that just learning historical facts is not enough. So we focused on certain "themes" more than others. Apartheid was a huge subject, the second world war and the Nazis as well. All topics dealing with prejudice and discrimination were top priority.

In the German class, when we read books and had our presentations of these books, if someone would just talk about what was written in a book, without getting the deeper meaning, she would go crazy. That's the only time she would really go crazy... only then.
You cannot be superficial. Look deeper.. understand the message...

Teachers have such a power to change things, to affect young minds. A teacher can have a profound influence on so many! To inspire generations... Prof. Renner inspired generations of free thinkers and I deeply love and respect her for that.

Sabina
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Re: The Physics Question

Postby mirjana » Fri Feb 12, 2010 1:20 pm

It is very nice topic that evokes many associations.
I enjoyed your stories, Sabina and Ryan, as well as the initial physics story.
My five cents are about professor who has also influenced many generations. It was my native language professor. His classes were everything else but typical for schools that time back. Today, after knowing the movie Dead Poet Society, I can say that he was quite like that. Himself free thinker, in love with literature, art and theatre, he combined grammar classes with lectures about literature, philosophy and art so that each of these will be remembered taken as a combination, supporting each other.
Besides, the whole presentation was done in the way like happening on the stage which gave us another perspective and the possibility to make a distance in the process of achieving all these information.
We used to await his classes with passionate tension in order to see what we shall hear, see and learn. Each class was an adventure.
I think that if schools were more of that kind, it would make a huge difference allowing personal self knowing and development.
That time back it seemed so easy when we were with him, so natural and spontaneous. Today I know that to be such a professor one has to be really good in that what one teaches and with lots of love for humanity.

Mirjana
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