MATHEMATICA NOTEBOOKS FOR THE INDEPENDENT STUDY OF PHYSICS IN ENGINEERING STUDIES
Adapting existing syllabi to the European Higher Education Area poses several challenges to University docents. One of them is the decrease in the number of credits assigned to each subject. This decrease is somehow balanced if one takes into account that former credits were calculated exclusively by counting face-to-face interaction between teacher and student while the new European Credit Transfer System concept of credit includes not only this aspect but also the independent study time the student has to spend in order to acquire the competences associated with the subject.
In the case of freshman year physics subjects, the student has to grasp many new concepts. Using a traditional textbook is usually not good enough to go beyond the ‘forest of formulas’ and understand the underlying basic principles in a relatively short period of time. In order to help the student in this task, we have developed several Mathematica notebooks that can be used in his or her independent study time. Mathematica (www.wolfram.com) is a powerful high-level programming language especially suited for analyzing any complex mathematical problem and creating graphics and animations that are an invaluable aid in understanding the meaning of the mathematical expressions that describe the behaviour of a physical system.
We have used Mathematica in our classrooms for over 15 years to help students visualize physical magnitudes but until a short time ago it was not possible to effectively use this code for independent study. The situation has changed because the program publisher has made available for free a piece of code called MathPlayer that allows to run Mathematica notebooks. This code in conjunction with the interactive capabilities of Mathematica 7.0 allows any student with a computer to change the input values for a physical system and create graphics and animations that display the behaviour of the different properties of the system.
We have written notebooks devoted to several aspects covered in Physics 101 and 102 syllabi, namely, vector calculus, kinematics and dynamics of particles and systems, fluid mechanics, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics.