Forget physics, let’s study psychology!

  Imagine you have a vertical cylindrical container, home to a cluster of ideal gas particles each with its own unique personality. This, however, isn’t your classic high school ideal gas, which can be solved by the basic pV = nRT equation; it’s under the influence of GRAVITY. As you can probably expect, in classical physics, understanding this scenario involves complex mathematics (and physics). But our researchers took another path and chose a route that leans more on imagination and visualization called the virial theorem. 

          Traditionally, the behavior of gases under the influence of gravity has been a mathematical maze, leaving students scratching their heads or simply falling asleep on their desks. However, our daring researchers decided it was time to unravel the complexities of this problem. But here’s the twist – they didn’t just focus on physics AT ALL. Now, imagine that you want to study psychology, but your parents force you to take on a physics degree. Well, what do you do?  Instead of studying physics, you study the minds of students studying physics. 

          The researchers decided to put on a showdown between the everlasting, traditional, mathematical based theory against the upon coming visually exciting, less math-heavy virial theorem, which is maybe slightly more suited for the TikTok generation with a 5s attention span. Which method will win? The researchers turned to the physics students for the answer.

                The study enlisted 24 advanced high school students, and what they revealed in their feedback is quite astonishing. Surprisingly, around 70% of the students claimed a good understanding of the traditional method. However, the twist comes with the virial theorem, where only 50% expressed the same level of confidence. Why? Well, it’s like learning a new language; it’s different and takes time to grasp. The survey challenged the students to choose their preferred approach when facing the gravitational gas puzzle alone. The results were a mix of surprises. Approximately 41% of students opted for the virial theorem. Why? It’s visually engaging, lessens the headache of mathematical complexities, and offers a fresh perspective. Now, here’s an interesting turn around: 37% preferred both approaches. Why not just pick one? It’s like having both a reliable old textbook but also Chat GPT to explain to you something your teacher couldn’t in under 20 words. Then, there were 20% who stuck with the traditional approach. Why? It’s familiar, although the math is slightly more intimidating. But hey, why leave something if it works?

Before you dismiss this narrative as a mere recitation of numbers and theorems, let’s take a step back. This study isn’t just about particles confined in a container; it’s a story of individuals diving in the vast and complex world of these randomly moving particles, again not just any gas particles but particles UNDER GRAVITY. It’s a good reminder that the learning journey is just as important as reaching the destination. It’s about finding joy in the process. Although, it doesn’t come as a surprise that students actually wanted a less math-heavy course with a more visual approach. Now would you like to study Calculus 1a with just computations and graphs, or would you want more proofs of the Squeeze and the continuity theorems. Although, a minority, 20% opting for traditional approaches, which is understandable as well. If you already understand the topic with few equations, then what’s the point of going through visually pleasing rainbow images. In the grand drama of physics, every student is different. Some shine with the brilliance of mathematical methods, while others shine with the vibrant imagination. The key is to let them choose their spotlight and move to their unique physics rhythm. May the discoveries of our researchers resonate in classrooms, where the marvels of physics unfold with every page turn and every leap of imagination. 

Ghimire Aayush. Teaching ideal gas in a uniform field: exploring student preferences (November 2023 Wittaya Kanchanapusakit and Pattarapon Tanalikhit).