Learning Goals for Calculus-Based Introductory Mechanics using smartPhysics (First Draft)

I’m on “vacation” right now which means getting some work done in between all the extra time I am spending with my wife and kids while visiting family. My project over the past week was revising and developing new learning goals for my intro mechanics course in the fall.

This year I am using smartPhysics for my first time and there are some topics that I have skipped in the past (such as relative motion) which are quite essential to many other topics (as presented in smartPhysics). So I had to be very thorough in going through the textbook and through the online homework questions to make sure that all the learning goals show up in the most appropriate chapter, that they make sense in the context of the vocabulary used in the textbook, and that ones which were no longer appropriate were removed or suitably revised.

The learning goals in each unit are in roughly the order that they come up. For unit 1, I made them extra fine-grained so that they can easily be checked off as we go instead of at the end of the unit. In Unit 1 we also do the quick and dirty black-box version of derivatives/anti-derivatives so that we can start using them as soon as possible.

Here’s a pdf version if that is more to your liking. Feel free to use any of these learning goals if you like, and feedback is always welcome.

Learning Goals for Calculus-Based Introductory Mechanics (textbook: smartPhysics)

Part 1 – Linear Dynamics

Unit 1 – One-Dimensional Kinematics

  • Calculate average velocity during a specified time interval using a position-versus-time graph.
  • Calculate or approximate instantaneous velocity at a specific time using the slope of a position-versus-time graph.
  • Given a polynomial expression for position as a function of time, use differentiation to find the expression for velocity as a function of time or at a specific time.
  • Use graphical integration (area under the curve) to find the displacement as a function of time given a velocity-versus-time curve.
  • Given a polynomial expression for velocity as a function of time, use integration to find the expression for the change in displacement as a function of time. Given the displacement at a certain instant in time, find the displacement at some other time.
  • Calculate or approximate acceleration at a specific time using the slope of a velocity-versus-time graph.
  • Given a polynomial expression for acceleration as a function of time use integration to find the expression for the change in velocity as a function of time. Given the velocity or other necessary information at a certain instant in time, find the velocity at some other time.
  • Use graphical integration (area under the curve) to find the velocity as a function of time given an acceleration-versus-time curve.
  • Apply the three equations for motion with constant acceleration (i.e, v=v0+at; x=x0+v0t+ at2/2; v2=v02+2a[x-x0]) to solve quantitative kinematics problems in one dimension.
  • Compare and contrast the relationship between the direction of the velocity and the acceleration when an object is speeding up, slowing down, or at a turning point.
  • Create and interpret motion diagrams. A motion diagram is a pictorial description of an object in motion which shows an object’s position, represented by dots, at equally spaced time intervals. The spacing between dots gives information about the object’s velocity and acceleration. For example, an object that is slowing down is represented by a continuously increasing distance between the dots in the direction that the object is traveling.
  • Draw acceleration vectors based on the velocity vectors from a motion diagram, or draw future velocity vectors based on an initial velocity vector and known acceleration vectors.
  • Translate between position-versus-time, velocity-versus-time, and acceleration-versus-time graphs. This includes being able to roughly draw the parabolic shape that corresponds to the integration of a linear graph. Calculate or approximate values at a specific time or average values over a specific time range from these graphs.
  • Translate between and interpret the different representations of information for the motion of an object in one dimension: word descriptions of motion, kinematic graphs (position, velocity or acceleration-versus-time), motion diagrams, and numerical/symbolic equations/statements.

Unit 2 – Two-Dimensional Kinematics

  • Compare and contrast scalars and vectors
  • Add and subtract vectors graphically or mathematically by breaking the vectors into Cartesian components.
  • Convert between the two major two-dimensional vector representations: Cartesian components (using x and y components along with unit vectors) and polar coordinates (magnitude and angle).
  • Describe the horizontal and vertical components of velocity and acceleration at every point along the trajectory for an object undergoing projectile motion.
  • Solve projectile motion problems for objects whose motion starts and ends at the same height (such as kicking a ball in a soccer field) or at different heights (such as throwing an object onto a roof or off of a bridge).
  • Discuss the assumptions required to be able to correctly apply the range equation. Recognize the two following insights provided by the range equation: maximum range occurs for a launch angle of 45 degrees, and the range for complimentary angles is the same.
  • Demonstrate mastery of “Unit 1 – One-Dimensional Kinematics” learning goals in two or three-dimensional situations.
  • Apply the three equations for motion with constant acceleration to solve quantitative kinematics problems in two or three dimensions.

Unit 3 – Relative and Circular Motion

  • Translate displacement and velocity between two different frames of reference.
  • There are no specific learning goals for these sections.
  • Relate an object’s velocity or angular velocity to its period of rotation which is the time it takes the object to make one revolution.
  • Perform calculations relating an object’s centripetal acceleration; its instantaneous velocity or angular velocity; and the radius of curvature of its path.
  • Explain how an object can have a non-zero acceleration even if its speed is constant.
  • Compare and contrast the direction of acceleration for objects undergoing constant speed circular motion and varying speed circular motion.

Unit 4 – Newton’s Laws

  • Recognize what does and does not constitute a force. Identify the specific forces acting on an object.
  • Use superposition to find the net force acting on an object.
  • Qualitatively relate the net force acting on an object to its motion.
  • Perform calculations using Newton’s Second Law which relates the net force on an object, the object’s mass and its acceleration.
  • There are no specific learning goals for this section. Learning goals for the concept of momentum are found in the Unit 12 learning goals.
  • There are no specific learning goals for this section.
  • Discuss why a given reference frame is or isn’t an inertial reference frame.
  • Identify the action-reaction force pairs produced by two interacting bodies.
  • Recognize situations where two or more objects have the same acceleration due to maintaining contact with each other or being attached to each other. Solve problems involving these situations including finding the net force acting on each of these objects.

Unit 5 – Forces and Free-Body Diagrams

  • Compare and contrast the concepts of mass and weight.
  • Correctly identify the normal force (magnitude and direction) exerted on an object by a surface with which it is in contact. Correctly identify the tension force (magnitude and direction) exerted on an object by a string, rope or other similar object with which it is in contact.
  • Relate the restoring force applied by a spring to the distance which has been stretched or compressed relative to its relaxed position and the stiffness of the spring.
  • Solve problems using the Universal Law of Gravitation which relates the attractive gravitational forces two objects exert on each other to their masses, the distance between them, and the universal gravitation constant.
  • Draw an accurate free-body diagram of a system, which includes excluding forces which are internal to the system (such as 3rd law force pairs).
  • Calculate the apparent weight of an object and relate the motion of an object to descriptions/graphs of its apparent weight. Apparent weight is the support force which would be measured by an object such as a bathroom scale (which measures the normal force applied to the object) or a rope attached to a force scale (which measures the tension force holding up the object).
  • Calculate the magnitude of the gravitational force and the normal force (apparent weight) acting on a body at rest or moving in one dimension.
  • Translate between expressions/graphs of net force acting on an object as a function of time and the resulting expressions/graphs for position or velocity as a function of time.

Unit 6 – Friction

  • Calculate the static or kinetic friction forces acting on a body. This includes determining if it is a static of kinetic friction force that is present in a given situation.
  • Given both static and kinetic friction coefficients, determine if an object is at rest or in motion relative to a surface with which it is in contact for situations such as a block on a ramp, attempting to slide an object across a surface or attempting to pull a surface out from under an object.
  • Correctly identify the direction of the net force required to keep an object travelling in a circle at a constant speed.
  • Solve “rounding a curve” problems that involve friction, a banked curve or both. These problems may involve finding quantities such as the radius of the curve, the speed of the object, a coefficient of friction or the angle of the bank.

Part 2 – Conservation Laws

Unit 7 – Work and Kinetic Energy

  • Calculate the work done by a constant force on a body that undergoes a displacement.
  • Calculate the kinetic energy of an object.
  • Perform calculations using the work-kinetic energy theorem, which relates the net work done on an object to its change in kinetic energy.
  • Find the dot product of two vectors using vector components, or using the magnitude of the vectors and the angle between. Use the result of a dot product to find an unknown vector component or the angle between two vectors.
  • Identify if the net work done on an object is positive, negative or zero based on the relative directions of the net force being applied and the body’s displacement. Relate the motion of an object (speeding up or slowing down) to the sign of the net work (positive or negative) which has been done to it.
  • Calculate the net work done when many forces are applied to an object.
  • Recognize the work-kinetic energy theorem as a statement of the conservation of energy.
  • Calculate the work done on an object by a varying force, a technique which requires the use of integration.
  • Relate the work done by a spring to the initial and final distances it has been displaced (stretched or compressed) from its relaxed position.
  • Recognize that the work-kinetic energy theorem is valid for varying forces and displacements along a curved path, in addition to constant forces applied along straight paths.
  • Recognize that work done by a conservative force depends only on the endpoints (initial and final positions) and not on the specific path traveled between those endpoints.

Unit 8 – Conservative Forces and Potential Energy

  • Recognize that the work done by a conservative force around a closed path is zero.
  • There are no new learning goals for this section.
  • Recognize the distinction between conservative and nonconservative forces.
  • Recognize that mechanical energy is conserved whenever the net work done by all non-conservative forces is zero.
  • Calculate the change in gravitational potential energy in a system.
  • Explain how two different people could get two different values for the gravitational potential energy of a system.
  • Use conservation of mechanical energy to analyze mechanics problems involving kinetic and gravitational potential energies.
  • Calculate the change in elastic potential energy in a system due to the compression or extension of a spring, or due to the work done on or by a spring.
  • Use conservation of mechanical energy to analyze mechanics problems involving kinetic, gravitational potential energies and elastic potential energies.
  • Solve problems in which both conservative and nonconservative forces act on a moving body.

Unit 9 – Work and Potential Energy

  • Perform calculations involving the work done by a nonconservative force such as friction.
  • We will be covering only the sections “9.2 – Box Sliding Down a Ramp” and “9.3 – Work Done by Kinetic Friction.”

Unit 10 – Center of Mass

  • Locate the center-of-mass of a two-body system, of a multi-body system, for continuous mass distributions, or for a system of objects. For continuous mass distributions, the most challenging integral you will be asked to perform is the integration of a polynomial expression.
  • Analyze systems consisting of multiple bodies and/or continuous mass distributions using the center-of-mass versions of the work-kinetic energy theorem (called the center-of-mass equation) or Newton’s Second Law (called the equation of motion for the center of mass).
  • Convert between the lab and center-of-mass reference frames

Unit 11 – Conservation of Momentum

  • Calculate the momentum of an object.
  • Recognize that the total momentum of a system is conserved (is constant) when the total external force applied to this system is zero.
  • Analyze inelastic collisions using conservation of momentum. Note that the term collisions also includes “collisions in reverse” such as explosions and recoil.
  • Recognize that kinetic energy is not conserved in inelastic collisions, and that this is a consequence of the internal forces being non-conservative. Discuss the forms of energy to which this lost kinetic energy is converted.
  • Analyze inelastic collisions in the center-of-mass reference frame and recognize that the total momentum is always zero in this reference frame.

Unit 12 – Elastic Collisions

  • Recognize that kinetic energy is conserved in elastic collisions, and that this is a consequence of the internal forces being conservative
  • Analyze elastic collision collisions in the lab frame and the center-of-mass reference frame.

Part 3 – Rotational Dynamics

Unit 14 – Rotational Kinematics and Moment of Inertia

  • Describe the rotation of a rigid body in terms of angular position, angular velocity, and angular acceleration.
  • Analyze rigid-body rotation when the angular acceleration is constant using the rotational equations of motion.
  • Translate between the linear parameters of distance, speed and acceleration to the rotational parameters of angle (angular distance), angular velocity and angular acceleration at a point on a rotating rigid body.
  • Use superposition to determine the moment of inertia of a system for a number of point-like or solid objects. Although we will discuss how to find the moment of inertia of solid objects such as cylinders and spheres, you will not be asked to find the moment of inertia of these objects on your own.
  • Determine the moment of inertia of a rod or other one-dimensional solid object where the calculation requires the integration of a polynomial.
  • Determine the rotational kinetic energy of a system of objects of known moments of inertia about a given axis of rotation.

Unit 15 – Parallel Axis Theorem and Torque

  • Find the cross product of two vectors using vector components, or using the magnitude of the vectors and the angle between. Use the result of a cross product to find an unknown vector component or the angle between two vectors.
  • Determine the net torque about a certain point due to one or more forces.
  • Use the rotational analog of Newton’s second law (the net torque is equal to the product of the moment of inertia and the angular acceleration) to analyze a rotating rigid body.
  • We will be covering only the sections “15.4 – Torque and Angular Acceleration”, “15.5 – Example: Closing a Door” and “15.6 – Torque and the Cross Product.”

Unit 16 – Rotational Dynamics

  • Calculate work in a rotational system which is the integral of the net torque over the angular displacement.
  • Find the total kinetic energy of a solid object which is sum of the kinetic energy of its center of mass and its rotational kinetic energy, which is due to the rotation of the object around an axis through its center of mass.
  • Analyze systems consisting of both translational and rotational motion (such as a rolling ball) using dynamics and/or energy.

Unit 17 – Rotational Statics: Part 1

  • Find the torque due to the weight of an object by treating it as if the entire mass of the object is located at its center of mass.
  • For a system in equilibrium, find all the forces acting on the system. Some forces may need to be resolved into normal and frictional forces.

Unit 19 – Angular Momentum

  • Relate the angular momentum of a system to its moment of inertia and angular velocity.
  • Analyze collisions or deformation in rotating systems using conservations of momentum. Examples of collisions include a person stepping onto or off of a merry-go-round. An example of a deformation is a person on a merry-go-round making their way toward the center.

Course-Scale Learning Goals

  • Be fluent with your physics vocabulary. Be able to compare and contrast, or distinguish between terms which are often used interchangeably outside of physics such as speed and velocity, or between terms which sound similar, but are completely different such as potential and potential energy.
  • Use proportional reasoning. For example be able to correctly determine that an object travelling at a speed 2v has a kinetic energy (K=mv2/2) that is 4 times that of when it was travelling at a speed of v.
  • List the assumptions made for a given model and be prepared to discuss the weaknesses of each assumption.
  • Perform unit conversions.
  • Verify that an equation is dimensionally consistent, that is by using the appropriate unit conversions, you can verify that both sides of an equation have the same units.
  • Explain and follow the rules for keeping track of significant figures in your calculation.
  • Make use of graphical interpretation for situations where differentiation and integration would normally be used. Examples include finding the slope of a velocity-versus-time graph to find acceleration or integrating a force-versus-displacement graph to find work.
  • Derive appropriate physical parameters of a system when presented with a graph. Examples include using the slope of a velocity-versus-time graph to find acceleration or finding the area under the curve (graphical integration) for a force-versus-displacement graph to find work.
  • Transfer the techniques and concepts learned in this course to novel contexts (that is being able to solve problems which do not map directly to those which have been previously encountered).

Running courses in a way similar to how a research group functions

Bret Benesh recently posted a wonderful post about setting up your courses/policies/actions to maximally respect students. I started writing a comment and it got long as my comments often do. So I decided to post it here as well as leave it as a comment on Bret’s blog. I have turned off the comments here so please wander on over to Bret’s post if you want to talk about it with me.

Running courses in a way similar to how a research group functions

I have yet to move past bribing students to do what is good for them. I am trying to move past this starting with my upper-year courses and slowly bringing my most successful policies into my first-year courses. I love it when Brett says “Part of my job is to help them learn to make responsible decisions. This is impossible to do unless the students are given the opportunity to make actual decisions.” My bribery-type policies are mostly in place to help that bottom quartile of students because many of those students are the ones that in my experience have the most trouble making responsible decisions. They are the ones that, when given very flexible due dates, will simply put things off until the bitter end and then scramble (and usually fail) to get everything in at the last minute. Of course when I use rigid due dates they often don’t bother to turn stuff in at all, so the net effect is probably the same, but I feel much more guilty when I feel like I have put them in a position to fail because it feels to me like I set them up to have the mad scramble at the end.

My new ultimate goal (as of today) is to have my courses feel like a well-functioning research group where I am the supervisor and the students are in the role of grad/co-op/summer student. I am there to support them as little or as much as needed and as a “good” supervisor part of my job is to quickly figure out what level of support they will need to be successful. In this model the students would feel responsible to the entire group to be productive on a regular basis and that other people (not just me) depended on them in different ways so that they could do their own work as well. If, on occasion, a grad student hasn’t done enough work in the past week to present something worthwhile at a research group meeting, the group moves on and the supervisor says something along the lines of “ok, we’ll look at that piece next week instead.” I would like my classes to look like that as well. It’s OK to miss arbitrary deadlines now and then, but the sense of responsibility to the greater group results in most students staying on top of things.

To do this requires some specific structuring of courses in a way such that the student is in fact responsible to the greater group with their weekly work instead of just to me. Some thought on how to do this include:

  • Students taking turns presenting or even better running some sort of learning activity on topics that I would normally be in charge of. One thing I have never tried, but just occurred to me, is to have a student be in charge of running the show for a sequence of clicker questions. Hmm…
  • Having in-class small-group activities where each student in the group is responsible for doing some different piece of pre-class preparation so that each student comes into the activity with much different types of expertise and thus each student’s level of preparation is important to their small group. If a student knows that they won’t be able to adequately prepare for their piece they can negotiate to take more responsibility for a future activity in exchange for the group covering for them on the current one.
This idea of running a course like a research group is not something new that came to me today. It is how I plan to run my Advanced Lab course (the name commonly given to the standalone upper-year physics laboratory courses) in January and I have a blog post on it simmering in the background. But there the students are engaged in a much more research-like experience so it only occurred to me today that you could take some of those elements and bring them over to a regular course.
If you want to chat with me about this, head on over to Bret’s post (link at the top of this page).

The Science Learnification (Almost) Weekly – July 3, 2011

This is a collection of things that tickled my science education fancy in the past couple of weeks or so.

Standards-Based this and that

  • SBF Grading Policy (Draft) – Bret Benesh presents a draft of his grading policy for Standards-Based Feedback (SBF), his fantastic idea where students submit a portfolio of their work at the end of the term and the collected works are meant to show mastery of all the standards. I’m very interested to see how this turns out.
  • Looking Back Before SBG – Geoff Schmit reflects on his concerns two years ago when he started using SBG by answering those concerns from his present experience.

Angry Birds

  • Angry Birds, Happy Physicists – Kotaku writes a piece on using Angry Birds for physics instruction and mentions or talks to John Burk (@occam98), Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) and Rhett Allain (@rjallain).


Modeling workshops are in full swing. Those that attend post as they go or reflect afterward. The more the merrier for these because giving up three weeks of the summer (and leaving the family for that long) is a hard sell so the more that people know to help them make a decision if they should attend, the better.
  • FIU Modeling Workshop – Day 1 – Scott Thomas is doing my favorite kind of blogging, writing for himself but making it public so that it is available for anybody who might find it useful. John Burk expands on this a bit and talks about blogging not just being about writing to get those ideas clear and out of your brain but also giving you somewhere to go back for later reflection.
  • Modeling Workshop Year 2 – Brian reflects on his year 2 modeling workshop. He has a post for each of seven or eight different days at the workshop so lots of stuff to read.
  • Inquiry Stylee: Let the Modeling Shenanigans Begin (Constant Velocity Model) – With modeling on the brain Shawn Cornally takes some high-frame-rate pictures out the window of his moving vehicle and sets up a very nice Dan Meyer style question about what speed is the van going.

Hold up on that homework

  • The No Homework Experiment – Kelly O’Shea tries no homework for the first part of a course and the kids love it. At a student’s request she started making up optional homework assignments that were just for feedback which led to this fantastic shift in student mindset toward actually wanting to use feedback productively: “after a bad test, a good number of students would ask, “Can I still turn in that optional homework for some feedback if I do it now?””


  • Mylene’s confusions category – Mylene’s summer PD seems to be being thoughtful and reflective. She has recently been working on a series of posts about confusion, how necessary it may be for learning and getting into the nuts and bolts of categorizing confusions.

Science away from school

  • Sending bottle rockets to new heights (of learning) – Peter Newbury posts about squeezing some authentic scientific learning into launching bottle rockets. I’m mildly involved with my university’s summer science camps and recently did some science activities with my son’s kindergarten class and Peter’s post hits very close to home.
  • Recapturing a Sense of Science Away from School – Brian Frank discusses his own journey of moving away from the idea that science is something done by scientists to science being done by everybody who asks the question “Huh, I wonder how that happens?”

The Physics Education Research community and Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/#!/list/Bud_T/per – Some twitter handle exchanges went down on the PHYSLRNR listserv and then Bud Talbot was kind enough to make a list of the PER doers and users on twitter.
  • On service courses – Joe Redish tweeted about his new post on species and while browsing through his posts I found an especially great post on service courses which includes the following: “I therefore propose we who are delivering service courses for other scientists – and I mean mathematicians, chemists, and computer scientists as well as physicists – ought to measure our success not just by the scientific knowledge and skills that our students demonstrate, but by their perception of their value to themselves as future professionals.”

Dealing with Student Resistance to Learner-Centered Teaching

  • Hang In There! Dealing with Student Resistance to Learner-Centered Teaching – I sent this article to the Dean of Science at my university because I thought it would provide a nice starting point when she was having discussions with faculty trying to do more than just stand-and-deliver. For the most part the faculty at my “teaching-focused” (note that it isn’t learning focused) university are quite traditional. New faculty are on probation for two years after which they have something that resembles tenure. Of course with most of the faculty being quite traditional, the majority of the folks on your probation committee might be wary of anything that you do that doesn’t match their own practices. I passed this on to my Dean so that she can better facilitate the discussion between new faculty that are using student-centered classrooms and the more traditionally-minded members of their probationary committee. And so that she can help the new faculty set themselves up for better success in the future with their student-centered courses.

Spontaneous collaboration

  • Maybe the twitter/blogging department needs its own journal… – John Burk posts about some twitterers/bloggers tackling the following problem: “You have a square dartboard. What is the probability that a randomly-thrown dart will land closer to the center of the dartboard than to an edge?” The problem gets tackled from many different avenues and people with vastly different skill-sets bring them to bear on the problem. This is the exact kind of work that John (and probably anybody reading that post) would love our students to be doing instead of just solving end-of-chapter problems.