NotesFAQContact Us
Search Tips
Peer reviewed Peer reviewed
Direct linkDirect link
ERIC Number: EJ1074900
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2015-Sep
Pages: 9
Abstractor: As Provided
ISSN: ISSN-0031-9120
Solving a Problem by Using What You Know: A Physicist Looks at a Problem in Ecology
Greenler, Robert
Physics Education, v50 n5 p529-537 Sep 2015
Two philosophical ideas motivate this paper. The first is an answer to the question of what is an appropriate activity for a physicist. My answer is that an appropriate activity is anything where the tools of a physicist enable him or her to make a contribution to the solution of a significant problem. This may be obvious in areas that overlap physics (e.g. chemistry, engineering, geology) but also true in any endeavour where mathematical modelling may contribute insight to the solution of problems (e.g. timing of traffic lights, efficient ways to seat passengers on airplanes, whether it is better to walk or run in a rain shower). The second idea concerns an approach to problem solving. Before some people try to solve a problem, they think they first must learn everything that is known about the subject. However, sometimes an effective approach is to declare, 'I'm going to solve this problem with what I know now!' I see a relationship between this approach and the idea of back-of-the-envelope calculations, which many of us appreciate. Of course there are limitations to this method, but I believe that such an aggressive approach to a problem--"uninfluenced by the methods everyone else has used"--can be productive. This paper describes such an approach to a real-world problem, using only what is known by the teacher of the introductory, calculus-based physics course. The intent of this paper is to encourage students and teachers of physics to look for unconventional areas, outside of physics, where they might use the techniques they have learned to solve problems.
Institute of Physics Publishing. The Public Ledger Building Suite 929, 150 South Independence Mall West, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Tel: 215-627-0880; Fax: 215-627-0879; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Research
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Location: Wisconsin
Grant or Contract Numbers: N/A