Physics Problems: Design and Denouement


Outline of the course:

Problems solving and construction is often regarded as a drudgery.  Note for example the familiar (Kunhian) refrain that most scientists are "mere problem solvers".  This only reflects the disdain with which problem related activities is viewed.

The present course will deal with aspects of the design of physics problems at the higher secondary school level.  Some examples at the undergraduate level will also be covered.  Problems at the higher secondary school physics level can be classified in a number of ways.

We have example closed problems.  These are problems one usually encounters in high school texts.  Some features of this set are:

1.  The physical situation is clearly specified and requires minimum student interpretation. 

2.   The problems includes exactly the information required to solve it – no more and no less. 

3.  The solution is usually unique  and well defined. 

4.  The solution requires some non trivial mathematical manipulations. 


The features of open type problems are:

1.  Only partial information is provided. 

2.  The system is usually complex. 

3.   One is forced to adopt unconventional approaches: visualization, scaling and dimensional analysis. 

4.  These problems are discouraged at the higher secondary school level. 


There is another set of problems which we term as thematic problems.  Some of us at HBCSE here became involved in them  in the course of orienting students for the International Physics Olympiads.  Some features of thematic problems are:

1.  They involve a variety of diverse concepts. They are not uni-dimensional 

2.  But they have a single theme or thrust e.g. a fascinating natural  phenomenon (e.g. tidal behaviour) or a topic of current research (e.g. scanning force microscopy).  

3.  One may need to invoke unusual approaches such as visualization, scaling arguments, dimensional analysis and judicious approximations in order to resolve the problem. 


Our objective will be to mainly discuss thematic problems and see if one can assign aesthetic index to them.  However we will eschew abstract theorizing.  We will deal with actual problems.  We shall endeavour to show that the design of good problem is a craft, a labour of love.


Suggested Reference:

1.   PHYSICS (Textbook for Class XI), National Centre for Educational Research and Technology, Government of India (2002) 

2.  PHYSICS (Textbook for Class XII), National Centre for Educational Research and Technology, Government of India (2003) 

3.   PHYSICS Halliday and Resnik, 2nd Edition. 

4.   IIT-JEE Problems from a suitable source. 

5.  International Physics Olympiad Problems from a suitable source. 

6.  Some B.Sc. level Physics Problems such as from National Graduate Physics Examination conducted by IAPT