By Donna Simmons
For science [with my then 10th grader–this was written about 10 years ago!] this semester, we are focusing mainly on physics. For a number of years I have been aware of the Teaching Company, an organization which produces lecture series on every topic imaginable, delivered by hand-picked college professors. Many homeschoolers use these courses as part of their children’s high school educations, and I was eager to see what the lectures were like.
So…. knowing that neither my husband nor I would be up to giving a properly Goethean (ie Waldorf) physics course to our son, we bought the lecture series Great Ideas of Classical Physics. There are 24 thirty minute lectures and three mornings a week, husband Paul, Gabriel and I watch a lecture and then discuss it a bit after.
The lecturer is Professor Steven Pollock, Associate Professor of Pysics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and he is magnificent! He is clear, thorough, animated and has such great warmth and enthusiasm for his subject that one can even feel this from the screen – it must be a real treat to attend his live lectures!
Professor Pollock begins with some ideas that the Greeks, especially Aristotle, had about the world around them and then spends quite a lot of time discussing Isaac Newton, whose ideas are, after all, the foundations of Classical Physics. He goes through Newton’s laws and in a very accessible and straightforward way, talks us through Newton’s discoveries and how he condensed his findings into his laws.
Pollock takes a historical view to Classical Physics which definitely makes it a bit easier for the lay person and student to follow. He also takes great care to often double back on what he said, to pick up threads he left dangling, and to draw the lectures together into a coherent whole. From Newton he takes us on an exploration of magnetism, electricity, wave and particle theory and, finally, the atomic hypothesis.
I heartily recommend this lecture series for motivated and strong student. Other families might also want to do as we did, watching these lectures together and discussing them. Although the professor was extraordinarily clear (and there was just about no math!), not all students find physics ideas readily digestible. Also, if one is trying to keep any whiff of a Waldorf flavor to what you are discussing, parents can help raise questions and bring further issues to deepen the experience. The ideas of classical physics are integral to a historic understanding of our world – but they are not the end of the story. We read an excellent article by Steven Talbot called Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen? We felt that it is crucial for our son not to feel that laws of physics are the be all, end all to explaining life. And Professor Pollock definitely, like many conventional scientists, goes in that direction. The game is not its rules – and Steve Talbot, researcher at the Nature Institute, a Goethean science center, raises many questions to help us think this through.
Back to the physics video, we bought the text to accompany the dvds and found they really weren’t necessary as the course notes were very detailed. To accompany the course, there are recommendations for “sims” at the computer lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder which we found to be a waste of time. Sims are computer sims – simulations of various experiments. All were disappointing. Instead, we worked with a special K’nex set Gabriel had gotten last Christmas. It is a deluxe roller coaster model, complete with teaching notes for high school physics. Many of the concepts covered in the lectures could be experienced using the roller coaster set (conservation of movement, F = MA and so on) much more satisfactorily than by manipulating computer images.