The potential impact of computers on physics education was announced in a 1989 paper “Using Computers in Teaching Physics.”1 The paper is subtitled “Computers can revolutionize not only the way we teach physics, but also what physics we teach,” and begins:

The computer has revolutionized the way we do physics, but surprisingly, it has not significantly altered the way we teach physics. Talks and papers on teaching with computers fill the meetings and journals of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and workshops on the topic abound, yet the real impact of computers in the classroom is slight.

The benefits of the anticipated revolution are described in the section “Computers Change the Curriculum”:

We must engage students in the intellectual process of modern physics much earlier in their training. The microcomputer can help bring this change about by permitting students to approach a wider variety of phenomena and problems than they can grasp with only analytic tools, and by enabling them to understand those phenomena on a deeper and yet more concrete level.

What can we expect from a computer revolution in physics education?

Classical physics is based on the analysis of differential equation models of physical processes. Computers revolutionized physics because:

  • Computers and computational calculus make it possible to analyze analytically unsolvable differential equation models of physical systems.

  • The models of most physical systems are analytically unsolvable.

  • Computational calculus quickly became the norm for analyzing physical systems outside the classroom.

Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, since analytic calculus is so difficult, the powerful basic method of computational calculus is simple, intuitively transparent, and can be taught to high school science students in a single one-hour lecture.

Computational calculus removes all the difficulty of analytic calculus in the analysis of physical systems, as if by magic. Poof! It's gone! Projects that are beyond the scope of undergraduate university physics programs become assignments in high school physics, e.g., the Apollo trajectory and several others described in “The Coming Revolution in Physics Education.”2 

The computer revolution in physics education will have two striking effects, both of which will happen overnight: differential equations will be taught in introductory physics, and the number and types of physical systems that can be analyzed will explode.

This will require rewriting the courses in classical physics, introductory to advanced. “The Coming Revolution in Physics Education”2 describes such an introductory course, and I've taught the course at a local high school. A new draft paper, “A New Physics Curriculum,”3 covers systems modeled with partial differential equations. The draft paper includes analyses of systems in central force motion, electric circuit analysis, rigid-body dynamics, heat transfer, wave phenomena, stress and strain in elastic materials, fluid dynamics, and electrodynamics; results are shown in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

Results of computational analyses of prototypical systems in eight branches of classical physics.

Fig. 1.

Results of computational analyses of prototypical systems in eight branches of classical physics.

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Prototypical systems in most branches of classical physics are analytically unsolvable; computational methods make their analysis routine. Students will learn the methods used for the analysis of physical systems in science and engineering today and apply them to a wide range of fascinating real-world phenomena.

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Using computers in physics education
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The coming revolution in physics education
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