Force and acceleration are fundamental physics concepts, known to be problematic to many students. In this work first-year physics students' understanding of mechanics has been probed in many different ways. The Force Concept Inventory has been for initial diagnosis, and in some cases also for post-testing. As part of the course, the students were assigned tasks relating the mathematical description of the motion in amusement park rides to the experience of the body. The results, as well as the gains exhibit considerable gender differences.
In the present study, the FCI was given to entering students in the engineering physics programme at Chalmers and in the Göteborg university physics program. The cumulative graphs in Figure 1 shows the distribution of individual pre-test scores and give a visual characterization of the groups.
The engineering physics programme (F) is highly competitive and attracts students with a general strong interest in physics and mathematics. The engineering physics students group has a very high average FCI score, 77% and 79%, respectively for the students entering 2003, and 2004. Figure 1 includes also results of a post-test performed some time after the second mechanics courses for students entering 2002, with a marginally higher average score, 82%.
The physics programme at Göteborg university (GU) accepts a smaller number of students, but in practice all applicants who are formally qualified are enrolled, leading to a much wider distribution of scores and a lower average, 56%. A post-test, was given, unannounced, during class the week before the exam. The 31 students who participated achieved an average of 83%. The normalized gain for this group of students was 0.57, with large differences between male and female students as discussed below.
Figure 1 Cumulative graph showing, on the horizontal axis, the percentage of students having at least the FCI score given on the vertical axis, where 30 is the maximum number of points at the test. Each point corresponds to one individual student. The lower curve is the pre-test score for university physics students(GU, N=59), whereas the upper curves refer the first year engineering physics students starting in the years 2003 and 2004 (F1,03 and F1,04, with 110 and 111 students participating, respectively) and to post-test score for the second-year students (F2, N=55), but also to post-test scores for the university students (N=31). |
Figure 2Comparison of FCI score and exam results in the for the engineering students entering in 2003. Each point corresponds to one individual. The maximum number of points at the exam was 60, and the pass limit was lowered from 30 to 24. |
Rennie and Parker (1998) considered the gender difference considering the importance of real-life problems and gender-adapted versions of the test have been designed (e.g. McCullough and Foster, 2000). McCullough L E and Meltzer (2001) have investigated the gender-adapted test, and found significantly modified response patterns for a few items. E.g. the original FCI item 14 includes an airplane dropping a packet. When changed to a bird dropping a fish, the fraction of correct responses from female students in her sample changed from 22% to 55%. Item 22 and 23 concerns a rocket, during and after using the engines. When the rocket was replaced by a person on ice, accidentally turning on a fire extinguisher the fraction of correct responses for female students on question (a straight-line motion) was improved from 10% to 48%. However, McCullough and Meltzer also found a remarkable decrease, from 47% to 18%, in fraction of correct answers for male students for question 22, considering the accelerated motion of the rocket/person.
Figure 3. Fraction of correct response for the different items in the FCI test, for the first- and second-year engineering physics students. For the first-year students, the results of male (N=84) and female (N=16) students are presented separately. (The results refer to the students starting in 2003. 16 questionnaires were handed in anonymously). |
The introductory mechanics course included a playground visit, student lecture demonstrations of physical phenomena and discussions about conceptual questions during lectures and problem solving classes. The students were also assigned an amusement park project. Each group investigated one section of a roller-coaster and one other ride attraction. All groups had different tasks that involved relating the experience of the body in amusement park rides to a mathematical description of the motion, as well as to data from electronic measurements of the g-forces experienced during the ride. The tasks were relatively open-ended. During the preparation for the visit the students had opportunities to discuss the amusement park projects with their teachers. The results of the investigations, which were performed in groups of 6-8 students, were presented in oral and written reports. Each group was also asked to work through the report of another group and to ask questions after the presentation. The amusement park project was first developed in the context of the educational programme "Problem solving in Natural Sciences", described elsewhere in these proceedings (Hanson and Nyman). More details about the amusement park project can be found in previous work (Bagge and Pendrill 2002, 2004, Mårtensson-Pendrill and Axelsson 2000, Nilsson et al 2004) and at the WWW-site, at http://fy.chalmers.se/LISEBERG/.
The intentions behind the design of the course included student involvement and a wide variation of taskts to accommodate different learning styles and to help students to connect different aspects of physics knowledge. The results indicate that the invitations to active engagement in the course have given significant improvement on the FCI test scores. Still, male students seem to have benefited more from the course, in terms of FCI score gain. The large gender difference in the pre-test is thus widened for the post-test, with the female post-test average comparable to the pretest average for the male students. This widening gender gap is a cause for concern and calls for closer investigation. A possible interpretation is that the female students took on a larger responsibility for coordinating the group work.
Table I: Fraction correct answers in the pre and post-test FCI scores for entering university physics students. The pre-test was taken by 59 students. The pre-test scores in parentheses correspond to 31 identifiable students that took both the pre and post-test and are the number used to evaluate the normalized gain. | |||
Group | Pre-test (%) | Post-test (%) | Normalized gain |
---|---|---|---|
Male, N=35(20) | 69 (70) | 91 | 0.72 |
Female, N=24(11) | 41 (44) | 67 | 0.41 |
All, N=59(31) | 56 (61) | 83 | 0.57 |
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McCullough, L. E. and Foster, T., A Gender Context for the Force Concept Inventory, AAPT Announcer 30(4), 105 (2000) see also
McCullough L E and Meltzer, DE (2001) Differences in male/female response patterns on alternative-format versions of FCI items available at href=http://piggy.rit.edu/franklin/PERC2001/McCullough.doc