Here is my dream. I am going to learn physics - my way. Every time I hear new facts I promise myself that I will sit in the library and dream up some wacky ideas about how those facts tie together. Learning how to create models is an important skill and I intend to practice it. I will do this by building a conceptual 'master model' for physics in my head. My master model will never be complete. The day it makes perfect sense to me is the day that I have lost the ability to see new possibilities. I will not start doing problems until I have sketched out a reasonable working model in my head. When I do problems, I want to understand what the overall goal of solving the problem is and how each individual step of the problem solving procedure gets me closer to that goal. I want to thoroughly integrate each type of physics problem I encounter with my conceptual master model. My goal is to look at a problem and be able to figure out (not remember) the first few steps to solving it even if I haven't seen that type of problem for years.
I intend to use mathematics. Mathematics is the art of being able to abstract the most essential features from any physical system and translate them into a very precisely defined language. Mathematics is not 'real' or 'truth'. It is a man-made creation that is designed to help its user focus on what is important and remove the extra details. I want to be fluent in the precise language of mathematics. I want to be a master at the skill of abstraction.
I am going to start keeping a notebook documenting my train of thought as I work out my physics master model. It will be written in pen and each page will be dated and numbered. I will try to switch the color I write with from day to day so that I can document which ideas showed up on which days. I will try to write neatly (this will be really hard). I will define all the words and phrases that I make up. My goal is to write up a notebook that someone else could read. Right now my notebook is mostly words. The only math is the practice problems (from textbooks) that I use to test the wacky theories I just came up with. (Can I get the 'right' answer if I use my newly created conceptual model to figure out the next step?) Eventually I want to be able to write up my wacky theories using both words and math.
I think that once, long ago, my teachers had their own dreams. Maybe they even had a dream kind of like mine. Life beat them. They gave up, became 'practical', and forgot their dreams. Now they are part of an educational system that is designed to control people's thoughts. They need to believe that their student's dreams are stupid and childish. They need to teach students that being successful science majors is about "just getting the answer" and whoever gets the answer fastest wins. They have to teach us to be 'practical' so that we will give up too. For if 'mere students' can do science and still be able to dream, then our 'practical' teachers must be complete assholes.
I need to feel like its 'OK' to sit in the library and just think. I need to remind myself that sitting in the stacks, looking for books that can help me develop my master model is NOT a waste of time. I am a morning person. I need access to library books and a study place early in the morning. My study place should not be at home (close to my oh so luxurious bed). I should arrive at my study spot the same time every morning. I should have some enjoyable morning ritual that ends with me sitting down in my study spot with my brain saying, "Alright!! Let's get to work!" I need to understand that the kind of thinking that I am doing is very heavy. Its 'OK' if I can only do it for an hour or two a day.
I need to have a better conceptual understanding of math than what a traditional American physics program seems to provide. I am NOT going to blindly use math as a tool to merely crank out the 'right' answer. I am going to learn how to create and apply models to physical systems using math. I am going to learn how to communicate and listen to ideas in math language. (Too bad the American educational system isn't teaching that. I think that's called science.)
I need to be very committed to maintaining my notebook -- no quick scratch work anywhere except in my notebook. Keeping this notebook is supposed to help me understand that my way of learning is just as official and valid as theirs. This notebook will receive the same formal attention I would give any class. Who knows, someday all of this work may actually count as a 'right answer'.
In the long run, I know my method of learning this material will pay off. Unfortunately, progress goes slowly when I first begin and then all of a sudden, after three days of thinking and many conceptual deadends, I finish a homework assignment in about an hour. I am a lot slower than students who "just get the answer". But when I do finally get the 'right' answer, I have a very powerful grasp of the new concepts behind that answer. My experience is that teachers really don't appreciate having students turn in their homework assignments late. They especially don't like to see said students 'wasting time' by sitting in libraries staring off into space and exploring the QA and QC section of the library stacks. Some professors have even told me that they will not answer any of my questions unless I turn in my homework on time. I have to figure out how to learn physics my way and still be able to pass classes so that I can get out of here.
BOTTOM LINE: I am a student who likes to think -- who still remembers how to think. So far, I have managed to navigate my way through an educational system that was not designed for me. I need to find (or build) a new learning environment that is "thinking friendly". I am not sure how much longer I can hold out alone.
Essay contributed to Serendip by Nicole M. Bliss