Science problems as Math problems

I've been working recently with a student who "presented" as a student struggling with physics. But in many ways, the physics is less of an issue than applying mathematics to the physics concepts. Their text is Glencoe's Physics Principles and Problems, which some reviewers describe as much as a math text as a science text. After helping with several chapters of homework, I would say that the problems at the end of each section or chapter tend to focus on those where mathematics can be applied to the physics, and that as a result if the tests are based upon those questions, the test will be as much a test of the student's understanding of the mathematics as their knowledge of the science. In many ways, it was the time consuming nature of the mathematics that was creating problems for the student.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon in that the development of math allows for new models of science, or that scientific theories require mathematical descriptions of the phenomenon in order to produce testable hypotheses. The further you go in math or science, this really does not change. I have another student whose assigned calculus problems are as much applied engineering problems where the demonstrated calculus would be used to solve them.

While the theoretical relationship between physics and math is interesting, the key point to remember is that a student should present the work in a way that demonstrates their knowledge of what the course is trying to teach. So for a physics class, the first goal is to show that you know the fundamental physics concept (e.g. F=ma, or conservation of momentum or energy), and then show the details of your math work, so that if you make a mistake, the teacher knows that you understood the physics, but you made a calculation error, or couldn't complete the answer because of time. Conversely in calculus, the focus needs to be that you show you know how the math works, and can go through the steps to solve a problem, even if you've misinterpreted or misapplied the underlying physical/engineering equation.


Underlying difficulties in math, and , also in reading can cause problems in science classes like physics. Thanks for your post highlighting a difficulty students have. Identifying the "math" difficulty is the first step to improving in science.
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