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NCSU Calculus-based Intro Physics

Robert Beichner


North Carolina State University

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This is a two semester sequence (four credit-hour per semester), calculus-based physics course that is required for all NCSU students majoring in engineering. The first semester covers basic mechanics and properties of matter. The second deals with electricity and magnetism, extending it to the role of electrons in matter. We emphasize the fact that there are only a small number of fundamental principles that underlie the behavior of matter and that these powerful principles can be used to construct models explaining a wide variety of physical phenomena.

It is taught in a studio classroom that was carefully designed to facilitate collaborative learning. For a quick introduction to the SCALE-UP (Student Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) project, visit our FAQs page.

Course Size:

Up to 99 students

Institution Type:

R-1 Land Grant University

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with a differential calculus pre-requisite and integral calculus co-requisite. It is a requirement for all engineering and science majors.

Tables in the NCSU Scale up room.

It is taught in a studio setting, combining what was originally 3 lecture hours and 2 lab hours into 5 "in-class" hours. Students sit in three teams of three at each round table. There is minimal lecturing, with most of the classtime spent on hands-on activities (called tangibles), interesting problems (called ponderables), and simulations.

Course Content:

The curriculum we follow, Matter & Interactions, is being developed at NC State but is used nationally. It focuses on the fundamental principles which underlie all of physics: momentum, energy, and angular momentum. We also explictly connect the atomic characteristics of matter with properties we can readily measure. For example, pulling on a wire to determine Young's Modulus leads to a ball and spring model of solids. This in turn leads to calculating and measuring the speed of sound in a material and eventually to a determination of low temperature heat capacity...all in a way that freshmen can understand!

Course Goals:

We provide students with the opportunity to acquire a good physical understanding of the course material. As stated in the general objectives (in Table 1) for SCALE-UP physics, this course places significant emphasis on qualitative physical reasoning as a complement to the mathematical quantitative aspects. By the end of this semester, students should be able to:

Course Features:

A typical class starts with a 5 or 10 minute "mini-lecture." Even though they are not very good at imparting detailed knowledge, lectures are often the best way to motivate students. Students are rarely excited by reading a textbook, so we try to provide interesting connections to our own research or some current event in physics. For example, we might note that scientists have just found the 250th extra-solar planet and in today's class they will write a simulation to help us understand how a planet that is too small and too distant to be visible can still be detected.

Students are also notoriously bad at seeing the "big picture"--how the current topic fits into the body of content taught in the course. This isn't surprising since they don't have the full view yet, and won't until the end of the semester. Students also tend to ignore helpful headings and other organizers in the textbook. Talking about these things in class helps global learners.

After the daily introduction, class moves from activity to activity, each lasting 10 to 15 minutes. There are brief summarizing discussions, usually based on student work, after each one. We try to have a mix of ponderables and tangibles. At the end of class, there is often a 5 minute summarizing discussion.

Course Philosophy:

We take advantage of the very latest teaching techniques to help students learn complex material. Our activities are designed with student misunderstandings in mind. (Many of our instructional materials list the known difficulties students have with a specific topic and provide questions to elicit these ideas. Many also show examples of typical student answers.)

Although first developed at NCSU, the SCALE-UP approach has been adopted by more than 50 colleges and universities around the world, from Wake Tech to MIT. Students are asked to work with others and communicate what they are learning. Each must be an active participant to get the most out of the class.


Rigorous evaluations of learning have been conducted in parallel with the curriculum development and classroom design efforts. Besides hundreds of hours of classroom video and audio recordings, different schools have conducted numerous interviews and focus groups, conducted many conceptual learning assessments (using nationally-recognized instruments in a pretest/posttest protocol), and collected portfolios of student work. NC State has data comparing nearly 16,000 traditional and SCALE-UP students taking physics. Their findings can be summarized as the following:



Teaching Materials:

Nearly half a gigabyte of teaching materials can be found at the SCALE-UP website. Visitors are welcome to see photos of some of the other schools that have adopted this approach and peruse the additional content (math, biology, chemistry, engineering, even literature) being taught. To gain access to the instructional materials, e-mail Bob Beichner, being sure to include a weblink or other means of verifying identity as a faculty member or administrator. Once you are registered, you'll be able to go directly to http://scaleup.ncsu.edu/wiki/pages/T197E99/North_Carolina_State_University.html and download lesson plans, accompanying files, course websites, etc. We also have a great lab grading rubric that takes much of the pain out of evaluating this aspect of student work.

If you want to see a detailed example of an activity, take a look at V. Kuo and R. Beichner, Stars of the Big Dipper: A 3-D vector activity, Physics Teacher 44 (4), 168-172 (2006). There you'll see how we teach students to fly a spaceship from one end of the constellation to the other, keeping track of their 3-D position and velocity vectors, all on the second day of class!

References and Notes:

The learning improvements and the research behind the classroom design are described in a peer-reviewed chapter available online. A paper describing the findings of the very successful pilot project was published in the first issue of the Physics Education Research supplement to Am. J. of Physics.

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