The Contribution of Thought Experiments in Teaching Physics

University of Athens, Greece

Supervising committee: K. Halkia, C. Skordoulis, G. Kalkanis

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Abstract

In science, apart from real experiments, thought experiments (TEs) are used extensively. TEs have special characteristics which make them useful tools not only for science, but also for teaching science. In this dissertation an attempt is made to explore the possible value of using TEs in teaching physics to upper secondary education students.

In the first part of the dissertation, the presence of TEs in physics textbooks and in books popularising physics theories is investigated. The study of textbooks and popular physics books showed that authors of both types of books consider TEs as an important tool when presenting physics theories, especially theories with a high degree of abstraction as are the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

In the second part, a qualitative study designed to investigate to what extent TEs can be used effectively in teaching basic concepts of physics theories of the 20th century to upper secondary education students. Three TEs were selected for the needs of this work.

(i) The TE known as Einstein’s Elevator was used to teach concepts regarding the principle of equivalence.

(ii) The TE known as Einstein’s Train was used to teach the consequences of the constancy of speed of light to concepts of time and space.

(iii) The TE known as Heisenberg’s Microscope was used to teach concepts regarding the uncertainty principle.

These TEs were selected in the form they are presented by distinguished scientists (Einstein, Landau and Gamow) in physics books addressed to the public.

A teaching / interview is the research instrument used, for each TE, which has been designed according to the teaching experiment method. In addition, a questionnaire (for each TE) with open-ended questions was administered to students two weeks after the experimental implementation (post-test). The sample of the research consists of 40 upper secondary school students (aged 16, grade 11) from 6 different schools in the Athens area. The students were divided into 11 groups of 3-4 students each. The experimental implementation lasted 2 hours for each group of students and for each TE. All interventions were recorded and transcribed and a qualitative content analysis of the transcripts followed. Also, an analysis of the post-test was made.

The findings of this study reveal that the use of TEs in the classroom may help students mentally arrive at situations that considerably exceed their everyday experience. This step is crucial because it helps students to approach physics theories which demand a high degree of abstractive way of thinking, as are the theories of the 20th century (relativity and quantum mechanics). On the other hand, historical TEs in order to become useful didactical tools need to be transformed properly. For that purpose physics teachers may draw useful material from books written by renowned scientists and addressed to the public. Basic elements of the popularised form of TEs are the narration and the demand of lesser mathematical formalism. This provokes students’ interest, who then easily may focus on the meaning of the related concepts. This work provides teaching material to design lesson plans for teaching the afore-mentioned principles and laws of physics. It also may be used as a guide for the use of other TEs in the classroom.

Thesis full reference

Athanasios Velentzas (2010). The Contribution of Thought Experiments in Teaching Physics. Unpublished PhD thesis. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Department of Education, Athens, Greece.

Publications in journals

Velentzas, A., Halkia, K. (2012). The Use of Thought Experiments in Teaching Physics to Upper Secondary-Level Students: Two examples from the theory of relativity. International Journal of Science Education. 1–24, iFirst Article. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2012.682182 

Velentzas, A., & Halkia, K. (2011). The ‘Heisenberg’s Microscope’ as an example of using thought experiments in teaching physics theories to students of the upper secondary school. Research in Science Education, 41, 525–539.

Velentzas, A., Halkia, K., & Skordoulis, C. (2007). Thought experiments in the theory of relativity and in quantum mechanics: Their presence in textbooks and in popular science books. Science & Education, 16, 353–370.

Correspondence

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