Graphical representations of vector functions in upper-division E&M

Edward Price, California State University, San Marcos Elizabeth Gire, University of Memphis

Submitted Abstract for PERC 2011

In upper division electricity and magnetism, the manipulation and interpretation of vector functions is pervasive and a significant challenge to students. At CSU San Marcos, using in-class activities adapted from the Oregon State University Paradigms in Physics Curriculum, students’ difficulties with vector functions become evident in two types of in-class activities: sketching vector functions and relating vector and scalar functions (e.g., electric field and electric potential). For many students, the cause of these difficulties is a failure to fully distinguish between the components of a vector function and its coordinate variables. To address this difficulty, we implement an additional in-class activity requiring students to translate between graphical and algebraic representations of vector functions. We present our experience with these issues, how to address them, and how in-class activities can provide evidence of student thinking that facilitates curricular refinement.

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