Advanced Physics Reaches New Heights

Everybody knows how to make toast. It is a safe bet, however, that most people don’t give much thought to the mechanics of a toaster itself: Why does it heat up while the cord connected to the outlet remains cool? Nine Class 12 students are examining this perplexing question and other highly sophisticated topics in an innovative new physics course that emphasizes self-directed inquiry, conceptual thinking and experimentation.

Taught by Dr. Prasad Akavoor, Advanced Physics is an enhanced and re-focused replacement for Advanced Placement Physics C, which Chapin offered until last year. “Although the AP course is rigorous in terms of analytical thinking and problem solving, we felt that the course emphasized a narrow spectrum of skills – using math to solve physics problems that were often somewhat contrived,” explained Dr. Akavoor, who also teaches Physics as well as Engineering. “Advanced Physics retains this problem-solving aspect of the AP course but also seeks to develop students’ lab skills and their ability to do independent research and projects.”

The curriculum offers theoretical and experimental study and comprises units on electricity and magnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics and modern physics, among other complex subjects. To demonstrate deeper understanding of the material, each student is required to write a research paper on a real-life application of concepts explored in class and complete two comprehensive projects.

To understand the inner workings of the toaster, the class began by exploring a quantity in physics known as electrical resistance, which measures how a device or material reduces the electric current flow through it. Think, for example, about resistance in terms of water pipes: The resistance is bigger when the pipe is thinner and the water flow is decreased.

Collaborating in teams of three, the students set up their equipment – a power amplifier, data-collection software, a set of dissimilar metal rods and various wires and clips – and got to work. Their goal was to determine the electrical resistance based on the rods’ length, diameter and material. To accomplish this, the students began by measuring the current and determining the voltage. After these two steps were completed, they moved on to calculate the resistance, entering their findings into their laptops.

“The upshot of this lab is that the students can plug in current and voltage sensors into the computer and visually see how they are related,” remarked Dr. Akavoor.

Over the course of the morning lab, the students attempted different solutions to execute the challenge. When they made a mistake, they would troubleshoot and try again. Although Dr. Akavoor was available to answer questions and offer advice, he allowed his students the freedom to experiment and strategize on their own.

In another experiment, the class learned how to map out a magnetic field. Using a simple compass, the students gauged the direction of a bar magnet placed in the center of their paper. In pencil they indicated the location of the North and South Poles and then drew lines to represent the paths of the magnetic field. As they moved the compass incrementally to align with both ends of its needles, the lines fanned out from the magnet in the middle to the far edges of the paper.

With a passion for both physics and calculus, a positive and determined attitude and maturity beyond their years, these young women have the potential to make their marks in this exciting field – which, unfortunately, remains predominantly male – in college and professionally. “This is a self-selected group and because of that, they are already motivated to learn physics at an advanced level. And, indeed, they are a very capable group of students,” said Dr. Akavoor.

Thus far, it has been an inspiring and productive first year for the Advanced Physics class. While their future plans are still in formation, Dr. Akavoor’s students appear to making the most of the experience. “The class is very much experimental, and you learn as you go along,” commented one student. “Although it does require a lot of work, it is manageable and Dr. Akavoor is great at providing support.”

Added another, “My favorite lab so far was called ‘Series and Parallel Circuits.’ Since we didn't have any instructions on how to set up the equipment, it was up to us to figure out where to connect a voltmeter and an ammeter. The process of trying to figure out the setup was indeed a bit frustrating, but ultimately rewarding when we had our ‘aha moment.’”

Click HERE to view photos from the class.