In their article “Transforming Physics Education” ( Physics Today, November 2005, page 36), Carl Wieman and Katherine Perkins make some very useful observations. I certainly agree that “the amount of new material presented in a typical class is far more than a typical person can process or learn.” That excess becomes all the more serious when one looks at summer-school classes. Teachers simply need more semesters over which to spread the work.
I disagree with many of the authors’ other points, however. Not everyone will be able to learn the most intellectually challenging ideas. There are several important reasons why physics classes are small. First, not everyone is capable of doing physics. Second, in stark contrast to other difficult studies like medicine and law, the capitalist motivator isn’t there: Physics doesn’t pay well.
I don’t favor using the Force Concepts Inventory the authors mention. It seems to me that traditional numerical problem solving more closely resembles how physics is really applied and used. Physics is highly mathematical, and that is not reflected in the FCI. Forces, for example, are vectorial in character. One needs to be able to handle vector addition and components. Also, some of the FCI questions would be best answered by direct experiment, not by discussion or human argument. When my students are asked how long two metal objects take to fall to the ground, I’d like to see them take two coins from their pocket and drop them next to the desk. I don’t want to see students arguing how nature works. Experiment trumps argument. I don’t see enough of an appeal to real experiment in Wieman and Perkins.