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Dear universal gravity, why do I teach you?

March 27, 2012

I’ve been wrestling lately with what I teach and why I teach it. We skip Doppler shift calculations because the kids allegedly can’t handle the math (I dissent on that, but oh well), but we teach universal gravity because that math is pretty simple. These kids will all hear sirens changing pitch, but very few of them are likely to ever leave standard surface of the earth gravity. Why am I spending their valuable time on things that they’ll never experience when it’s clearly coming at the expense of explaining thing that they most certainly will experience?

If I do it because it is of great value to learn about things that you’ll never get a chance to see and touch then shouldn’t I be spending all year on quantum mechanics and special relativity? If it’s just a math differential then…well what the hell is up with that? Why am I letting that drive my curriculum decisions? And why do I allegedly have droves of students who can’t handle fractions coming to me in their junior year?

Now don’t get me wrong. I love universal gravity. It’s beautiful physics with a great story behind it. But I sit here planning my curriculum eyeballing Cavendish experiments and Doppler Frisbees, trying to weigh the cost-benefit ratios, and I feel like something doesn’t make sense. Not to say that it’s wrong, but I’m not certain I can defend what we do as The Correct Thing. A stance I find worrying.

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