Discovery Project: Physics in Practice: Solving Real-World Problems

In this assignment, students applied physics to real-world problems across various fields like quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, focusing on intuition over complex math. The comprehensive problems doubled as educational readings, aiming to both motivate and empower students.

Author: Eugene Chiang, Professor in Astronomy, Earth & Planetary Science
Course Number & Title: Physics/Astro C101: Order-of-Magnitude Physics
Grant Type: Berkeley Discover Departmental Innovation Award Program (Discovery Trailblazers)

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Assignment Title
Physics in Practice: Solving Real-World Problems
Delivery Format Online asynchronous instruction

High Impact Practices (HIPs)

(Review definitions for each category(link is external)(link is external).)

  • Capstone Courses and Projects
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  • Learning Communities
Learning Objectives
  • Learning how to insert a space between looking at a problem and reflexively saying “I don’t know” or “That’s too hard”
  • Developing a physical feeling for a subject
  • Learning how to sketch solutions to equations without formally solving them
  • Learning how to simplify problems
  • Learning how to decide what physical effects are important in a given situation
  • Learning how to ask good questions
Brief Summary of Assignment

Students are asked to apply physics to solve problems of practical importance. This particular problem set treats quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and nuclear physics. The problem sets also contain extensive exposition and constitute readings unto themselves, often more relevant than textbooks. The goal is for students to feel motivated to solve the problems, and to feel empowered after solving them. The last question requires the student to ask their own question, which is evaluated for physicality, relevance, and creativity.

Innovative Teaching Reflection

The problems are taken from real life, and cover all of physics. They are not cookie-cutter problems, and they emphasize physical intuition over long mathematical derivations. 

Assignment Length

6-8 hours

Impact & Feedback

Here are two quotes from students who took this course:

"Being able to take a course like this with an exceptional professor made me more convinced of the validity of the superior reputation UC Berkeley enjoys. No one course has improved my thinking so much. '7' does not seem a high enough rating for this course. I give it a '10'."

"It seems like for a lot of physics students, you take your upper divs and do a lot of math and in–depth problem solving or derivations and learn the "theory" super in depth, but for a lot of us the intuition for thinking about all kinds of interesting real world problems (like the kind of thing you might do in research) doesn't really come easily at all, and it sometimes feels like making the jump from "classroom" physics to "real" physics is not easy. Like when you are trying to understand (like actually understand) a whole lot of difficult and new concepts at the same time it's very easy to get overwhelmed by the math, or the notation, or the formulation of stuff, and in the process you might lose the core ideas and intuition involved which makes things even harder. I've noticed this with myself but also a lot of my friends say similar things, and I feel like Order of Mag provides a really different perspective to looking at problems and thinking through interesting questions which was really helpful in giving a different context to things I'd seen in other physics classes, and helped me better understand and more importantly connect different concepts. Its like you really get a chance to step back, and not be in the weeds of stuff, so you can check out the big picture, which feels like something that physics upper div classes sometimes miss out on doing. I also feel like after taking this class I'm a lot more curious about random everyday stuff, like I see something and go "whoa how does that work" which I think is cool."

Assignment Details

See handout, syllabus