In AP 50, students own their education

By Caroline Perry
September 23, 2013

Introductory applied physics sequence reinvents classroom learning, engaging students from all fields

Class Demonstration

Eric Mazur (center) asks a group of students to explain how momentum, potential/kinetic energy, and elastic/inelastic collisions are demonstrated in their Rube Goldberg machine. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS.)

A strange collection of objects accumulated outside the Connaughton Room in Pierce Hall last year. Stowed in lockers were a box of eggs, a Clapper, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a set of dominoes, PVC pipes, a glass jar, pulleys, and a plastic racetrack—the raw materials for students’ design projects in Applied Physics 50 (AP 50), “Physics as a Foundation for Science and Engineering.”

“We would throw out crazy ideas like mouse traps or Newton’s cradles or catapults,” recalls Ryan Alden ’14, a chemistry concentrator, “and the next day we’d have a bunch of mouse traps to play around with.”

Grounded in a teaching philosophy that banishes lectures and encourages hands-on exploration, the course represents a collection of best practices gleaned from decades of teaching experience and studious visits to college physics classrooms nationwide. Considered the “applied” sibling to the “analytic, numerical, and experimental” Physical Sciences 12 sequence, AP 50 is being offered for the second time this year at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, open to undergraduates from all concentrations.

“The environment we created in AP 50 is really conducive to students taking ownership of their own learning and authentically assessing their own skills,” says Eric Mazur,Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, who co-teaches the course withCarolann Koleci, preceptor in applied physics. “It’s about helping students apply what they’re learning within a real-world context.”

For today’s knowledge-based economy, it’s not so much what you know, but what you do with what you know,” says Koleci.

Team-based design projects feature prominently. Over the course of the 2012–13 year, students reverse-engineered musical instruments, using the new knowledge to design “perfect” panpipes, zithers, and diddley bows. They used electronic circuits, laser cutters and band saws to build secure safes and then crack the codes. They also built Rube Goldberg machines, contraptions that achieve a task—in this case, cracking an egg—through a chain reaction of motions.

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