On learning calculus (or physics)

Problem #3: Agent Kearnen will cover your entry into Klovan Mortwake’s old tower If Claire’s (the rifle, silly!) muzzle velocity is 120 yards/sec, and you’re standing at the entrance 100 yards away when a Mercenary attacks you, at what angle should she fire to kill him for you?

My dad’s a physics teacher. He teaches students of various math levels. That is, he need to make sure that when he’s teaching student about the physics of launching a cannonball, there are people in his class who might have just learned about sine and cosine functions.

My dad tells me students are smarter than when he was in school. I used to look at him incredulously — my peers are smarter than you were? whaaaaaaaaaaaaat, c’mon, Dad — and he’d tell me about when he took calculus. Calculus was a college thing, and not even first-year course. Calculus meant you were going to graduate school for something, like physics.

Today, there’s a lot of AP Calculus in high schools.

It’s not skimpy calculus, either. I didn’t fully understand what I learned in AP Calc BC until I had to do the Schroedinger Equation in only 2D (3D delightfully terrified me). My modern physics teacher — who also taught Pre-Calc, by the way — had to walk us through the electron in the energy well pictorially before that sum of rectangles under the curve thing clicked for me as an integral. (If I recall correctly, I got a 2 on the AP Calc BC exam, a 3 on the AB subscore. That was junior year. Modern physics was senior year.)

It’s not that calculus is any easier to learn today than it was when my dad took it. It’s the same calculus he learned. Modern calculus hasn’t changed in a few hundred years, actually.

But my peers and I have gotten “smarter,” which is to say we’ve gotten better at learning the math tricks in the time between my dad’s calc class and mine. (Some other day we can talk about whether that difference is due to innate intelligence or better teaching methods.)

Anne Stickney didn’t write a post about how the stupids are ruining the game. Nor did she write one that says if you’re not bored yet you’re stupid. It’s not a post about the pie chart of varying intellects of WoW’s player population.

Instead, she wrote a post about how we know all the tricks from having done them over and over. She wrote a post that says Cataclysm’s lesson to Mists of Pandaria is to bring its A-game in creativity with activities ranging from quests to heroic boss encounters. Because we’ve seen it all so far. Even the Cataclysm babies have gone back for transmogrification outfits, so they’ve seen it all, too.

It doesn’t have to be harder. We just want to enjoy calculus again, not have it be another same ole slog. Would you rather learn physics the old way again, which is to sit and listen to a professor talk on about it? Or would you rather do a quiz regarding a trash bag-covered hula-hoop target across the room with a small cannon that launches those coin machine bouncy balls, where your grade is 100 divided by the number of tries it takes you to hit the target?

Personally, I’ll take a permanent rain-check on the “Vanilla” physics education method. I loved that lab-quiz (100% baby!) and would do it again in a heartbeat.

(Maybe since I’ve done it once, add a hoop in for me, or I have to bounce it along the walls twice like a billiards game. Maybe.)

On learning calculus (or physics)

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