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A Constructivist Approach to Teaching Special Relativity

Submitted by Jason Jennings For Prof. Robert Sargent, Curriculum in Practice II

‘Speed of light’, ‘space-time continuum’ and ‘E = mc2’ are all terms that mystify students when they study Special Relativity. It is one of the most fundamental theories in modern physics for describing the universe yet it is not fully comprehended by most people. Contemporary high school physics curriculum requires students to gain some understanding of the theory. The Atlantic Canada Science Curriculum: Physics 11/12 document states the following specific course outcome: “Students will be expected to apply quantitatively the law of conservation of mass and energy using Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence.” (p. 140) To put it more simply, students must understand E = mc2. This outcome is achieved specifically within the scope of the quantum theory of the atom. It would be easy for a teacher to quickly state the equation, briefly explain the according to Einstein mass can be converted to energy and vice versa, and move quickly into applications of mass-energy equivalence in situations like nuclear reactions. This approach may be used to save time and ‘cover the curriculum’ in order to have students successfully write the provincial exam. E = mc2 is one of many aspects of the greater Theory of Special Relativity, first published by Albert Einstein in 1905. To completely understand the nuances of the atomic world, students must first understand the mechanics of the greater universe. Special Relativity would logically lend itself to a study of quantum theory and modern physics. In the interests of time and curriculum compaction, a teacher might be tempted to explicitly state the postulates of the theory and its ramifications to students. Since understanding Special Relativity requires a completely new paradigm for explaining observed phenomena, students may be left inappropriately rejecting classical physics studies in lieu of this radical theory simply because the greater scientific community (the teacher and Einstein included) dictate so. Conceptions from classical and relativistic theories that contradict each other may exist simultaneously in the minds of learners leading to poor understanding of experiences and experimental data. Students may also feel disappointed after years of studying a physics that now fails to explain what is really going on with the universe. By using a constructivist approach to teaching Special Relativity, students can engage in collaborative, formative discussions that allow them to feel connected to this paradigm from their classical experiences. Before analyzing how students can constructively learn Special Relativity, it is necessary to provide some background information of the theory. It consists of two postulates: 1. (principle of relativity): The laws of physics (including electrodynamics) are the same in all inertial frames of reference. 2. (invariance of c): Light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity c that is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body or on the state of motion of observer measuring it. ( In other words, all motion is relative, except for light (whose speed in a vacuum is roughly 300 000 000 m/s). Four main consequences result from these postulates:

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reflective and socially mediated. portfolios and journals.1. Length Contraction: the length of an object as measured by one observer may be smaller from the results of measurements of the same object made by another observer. but is dependent on the relative speeds of the observers' reference frames. Students eventually become formal. (Llewellyn. Traditional science classes begin as lectures and develop into hands-on activities. Teachers assess student development through roving observations and evaluations can be made through student exhibitions. operational learners. The equation for time dilation is: t = to  v2  1− 2 c    (to is the time in the observer’s frame of reference. . 28) Instead of using prescribed textbooks and lab experiments. When faced with good analogies and probing questions from teachers. students work in groups to pose and answer relevant questions on data from different sources and manipulatives. Groups must make sense of available evidence.pdffactory. students raise new questions that either accept a previously-held notion about a concept or refute it and replace it with a better working theory or schema. 3. Constructivist educators believe that learning is student-centered. p. identify patterns and relationships and come to consensus on a common framework of explanations. student would engage in hands-on activities and then proceed to limited lecture presentations. equipped with not only the knowledge of a concept but the tools to test the concept against new information that may arise. L is the length of an object in the ‘moving’ frame of reference by the observer) 4. constructivist teaching is encapsulated in the 5E Learning Cycle: PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. Apparent Increase of Mass with Increased Velocity and Conservation of Momentum: E = mc2 p= mv  v2  1− 2 c    Constructivism is a pedagogical theory that purports that students construct knowledge from preconceptions. Time Dilation: the time lapse between two events is varied from one observer to another. Teachers facilitate group conversations using Socratic Dialogue that includes “What if…” and “I wonder…” kinds of questions. In the constructivist classroom. The equation  v2  L = Lo 1 −  2  c    (Lo is the length of an object in the observer’s frame of reference. Lack of Simultaneity of Events: two events that occur simultaneously to one observer may occur at different times to another observer. t is the time in the ‘moving’ frame of reference by the observer) 2. Research into constructive practices show a high success rate in moving students from the ‘concrete’ to the ‘abstract’.

All groups are posed the same questions. In order to explain the constancy of the speed of light. Teaching Special Relativity poses a great challenge. The recorder is asked to record any difficulties or further questions that arise from the discussion. secondly. A second student is asked to be a recorder of information. it must also be plausible. it appears that challenging previously-held physics notions of space and time that are ‘absolute’ may leave students with no schema upon which to develop an understanding of Special Relativity. the teacher) poses the questions to all groups and each group provides its answers. students are told that they will be playing “The Relativity Game”.pdffactory. The teacher actives surveys all groups during the discussion round of The Relativity Game. The following is a sample guide to teaching Special Relativity through a constructivist approach. was relative. Or the house can be changed by going down to the foundation with house jacks and jacking up the building until the door will close…Jacking around with the foundation is usually a stupid approach. The goal is for each group to match its answers with those answers predicted by Special Relativity. Once in groups. Einstein assumed that time. advancing through different steps. not absolute as is normally observed.e. The door can be changed by planning or rehanging. Its notions are counterintuitive to even those students who have taken physics courses. each group will be asked to answer a series of questions. the new concept must be useful in explaining new. noting important conceptions. One student is asked to be the speaker. The speaker also keeps the pace of the activity. groups assemble in a common area and play the action round of The Relativity Game. their scientific conception must be intelligible. misconceptions and questions that arise. In this role. A game host (i. Lastly. utilizing the 5E Learning Cycle: Engagement: In the Engagement stage. In Relativity Visualized. Further noting takes place during the action round when groups compare their answers to each other and to Special Relativity. students are placed in groups of three or four. like space. In later activities. students will be encouraged to take on a different role than previously held. The recorder is expected to contribute to the conversation. Each group is asked to discuss each question thoroughly and write down one answer that represents a consensus from the group. In the Relativity Game.” (p. the remaining students act as skeptics. . After 15-20 minutes. various situations. a speaker would moderate between all conversations and expressed opinions in the group. Lewis Carroll Epstein compares Einstein’s reasoning in defense of Special Relativity to be radical and foolish. This game is meant to create disequilibrium within PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. Epstein comments on Einstein’s theory: “If a door in a house won’t close two things can be done. The skeptics’ role is to question all opinions and points of view for clarification and understanding and raise possible inconsistencies with thinking. fourthly.Engage Evaluate Explore Elaborate/Extend Explain In order for students to make the necessary conceptual change. finally. they must initially become dissatisfied with their existing conceptions. Students may also be reorganized into different groups. 25) At first glance. Experimental data is a good way to present the ‘reality’ of spacetime relationships that force students to challenge their notions.

html) This website contains simulations entitled Relativity of Time.8722. You are comfortably sitting on a rocket traveling straight in the air at 250 m/s. You are comfortably sitting on a rocket traveling straight in the air at the speed of light. classical conceptions about time. If the ships are in formation. You. students are asked to collect data that confirm the new knowledge developed in the Relativity Game. students are divided into groups of two or three. You turn on a flashlight. length contraction and energy-mass equivalence. TRUE or FALSE: Can a massive particle increase its speed continuously without bound? As a culminating exercise for the Relativity Game. the signal will reach one friend in the lead ship and the other friend in the rear ship simultaneously. What is the speed of the photons produced by the flashlight from your viewpoint? What is the speed of the photons from the viewpoint of a friend on the ground? 5. The teacher will regularly read journal entries to assess proper development of concepts and identify any misconceptions in order to plan for possible remediation lessons. What is the speed of the rock from your viewpoint? What is the speed of the rock from the viewpoint of a friend on the ground? 3. Several websites offer simulations. These particular simulations pose several questions to the user and provide java applets in order to collect data to answer questions. length. students are asked to organize their “confusions” in a journal. send out a flash of light. Through these simulations. If the ships are not moving. You throw a rock in the direction of the moving rocket at 5 m/s. can their constant speed by determined be examining how much more time it takes the signal to reach the lead ship than to reach the rear ship? Why? Exploration: As an introductory activity to the Exploration stage. You and two of your friends are traveling in three different space What is the speed of the photons produced by the flashlight from your viewpoint? What is the speed of the photons from the viewpoint of a friend on the ground? 4.pdffactory. what distance in light-years does she travel to the distant star? 6.00. Groups are instructed to go online to several physics websites that offer simulations in Special Relativity.the minds of students between previously held. This journal will be kept throughout the unit on Special Relativity. You and your friends wish to know your common speed. speed and mass and the consequences of Special Relativity. Her destination is a star 4 light-years away. like ActivPhysics Online (http://wps. From Jill’s frame of reference. You are comfortably sitting on a rocket traveling straight in the air at 250 m/s. Relativity of Length and The Compton Effect (see Tables 1-3). Following the discussion. PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version . Jill takes a ride in a spaceship moving at 80% of the speed of light. These ships are traveling in a line with equal separation and speed. the teacher leads students in a class discussion surrounding the counterintuitive nature of Special Relativity. Students are encouraged to share their thoughts from their journals. in the middle ship. Sample questions are outlined below: 1. Groups investigate (in order) time dilation. You turn on a flashlight. .Table 1 – ActivPhysics webpage displaying Relativity of Time simulation PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www.

com .pdffactory.Table 2 – ActivPhysics webpage displaying Relativity of Length simulation PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www.

which produce subatomic particles called mesons that travel at speeds approaching the speed of light.shtml) takes users through a virtual tour of the Fermilab experiment E687.pdffactory. The virtual tour allows students to examine real-world data and with some algebra and statistical regression derive the conversion equation for time .Table 3 – ActivPhysics webpage displaying Compton Effect simulation Other useful online simulations that demonstrate the effects of relativity are available on the Fermilab PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. The Relativity Challenge (http://www-ed.fnal.

Table 4 – Fermilab’s Virtual Tour of the Relativity Challenge (http://wwwed.shtml) PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version .pdffactory.fnal.

Rubrics. allow constructivist teachers to gain evidence for learning among students.pdffactory. particularly those that are based on process. Both these online activities from Fermilab contain not only student web pages but also teacher web pages that help facilitate learning in the site.Table 5 – Fermilab’s Virtual Tour for examining mass-energy equivalence (http://wwwed. Important assessment rubrics are also . PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. a proton-antiproton collision in Fermilab’s particle accelerator.fnal. which travel a near-light speed and confirm their prediction with experimental data. Students predict the mass increase in the Another online simulation from Fermilab involves confirm of energy-mass equivalence or E = mc2 using real-world data obtained from the D-Zero Experiment.

An example of such an exercise would be: “In the Venn diagram below.pdffactory. They would be expected to adequately describe time dilation. they would be expected to provide brief examples of experimental data that confirms these relativistic concepts. This could be accomplished by having students from a Venn diagram to visually separate the common and discrepant characteristics of old and new theories.What Happens When Things Go Near the Speed of Light? Assessment . To conclude this stage. Perform a wee bit of algebra on the best-fit curve to derive a correction factor for time . students would be asked to highlight any inconsistencies between classical and relativistic physics. describe facts about time. length contraction and energy-mass equivalence. length.fnal.” PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. mass and reference frame. Compare these predictions to Predict how far an energetic particle will travel during its lifetime. students would be expected to complete a journal entry.html) The Exploration stage may takes several classes to complete. TOTAL SCORE OVERALL POINT SCORE: _____________________ COMMENTS: Table 6 – Student Assessment Rubric for the Relativity Challenge (http://wwwed. Finally. given the multitude of online simulations and activities in which students could participate. Either draw their own plots or study those provided to determine the nature of a plot and a best fit to those plots. As well.Relativity Rubric Student Researcher: _____________________ Partners: _____________________ _____________________ _____________________ Exceeds Expectations 3 Meets Does Not Meet Expectations Expectations 2 1 or 0 Score Points Earned Experience the discrepancy between frame-dependent measurements. Derive the velocity dependent correction factor that is used in relativity.

the teacher leads a class discussion in order to construct an overall Venn diagram on the whiteboard. The derivation requires little more than Grade  (or 10 algebra and trigonometry (i. He provides an acceptable framework for explaining Special Relativity and providing context and extension to classical physics models. The teacher can also use this discussion to answer questions for clarification and highlight new questions that arise. These groups are then instructed to combine with another group and perform the same analysis of diagrams. The derivation of the equation for time dilation is appropriate for the algebraic skill level of most high school students. Students may be troubled by this reality but can take solace knowing that calculations are confirmed by experimental data. space. In Relativity . Finally. The teacher has students compare Venn diagrams from their journals in small groups of three or four. Epstein takes readers through Gedanken or thought experiments that challenge conventional thinking. length contraction and energy-mass equivalence. The students are then exposed to the relativistic equations for time dilation. The teacher pays particular attention to vocabulary usage among students and any analogies that students use to explain phenomena. Students may discuss similarities and differences in their diagrams. Epstein begins by discussing how energy packets or photons can ‘act’ like massive particles by colliding with actual massive particles (or the Compton Effect). E = mc2 is actually derived using simple algebra and beginner physics concepts. For introductory physics students. Epstein uses little mathematics to explain models.e. He goes on to explain how energy has mass and mass has energy. as it is called in more advanced physics courses) is evident through this derivation. Paul Hewitt calls mass “congealed energy” in PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. mass and energy. this departure from equations and calculations may greatly reduce anxiety about learning Special Relativity and establish a high comfort level for acceptance of new ideas. Derivations of the equations for length contraction and revelation of the gamma factor unfortunately are not so evident. Clear illustrations and humor are used to lure readers into constructing new models for explaining time. and are free to modify their diagrams. but contain a sense of logic. Students are required to perform several calculations and verify developed conceptions. The gamma factor 1 −   c2     v2  Lorentz transform. the Pythagorean Theorem). Surprisingly. Advanced calculus is required to construct this equation.Classical Relativistic Explanation: For the Explanation stage of the unit on Special Relativity.pdffactory. a cooperative learning process called the ‘jigsaw’ is employed. It may also be necessary to revisit some of the online simulations to confirm experimental data with calculations. An excellent resource that can be used by any physics student or teacher is Lewis Carroll Epstein’s Relativity Visualized. Conventional derivations of E = mc2 requires similar higher-level mathematics.

The amount of distance a thing moves is simply the time it spends traveling multiplied by its speed. speaker. Now take the energy equation E = fts. if a conveyor belt is moving at constant speed while the mass of sand riding it grows. the required force becomes zero. it must account for the verified results of the old theory in the region where both theories apply. Only its mass can increase with added energy. For the purposes of chapter analysis. Groups are assigned a section of the chapter and instructed to create a sentence for each paragraph that clearly summarizes the main points of each paragraph. (pp. It may then be comforting to realize that many prominent scientists were initially perplexed by Einstein’s hypotheses and worked to validate the Correspondence Principle. is moving at nearly the speed of light. If the sand stops falling on the belt. added energy can only add mass. 5 (constructing a model for why objects cannot exceed ‘c’). PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. Once in groups. students can be divided into groups of three or four. erase the r and replace it with m/t. Epstein constructs a transition between the traditional model and a new one. E = mcc or E = mc2. He alludes that classical mechanics for objects traveling at speeds much lower than ‘c’ is simply a confined case of a broader theory that includes objects that approach ‘c’ and light itself. The rate at which sand falls is expressed as rate = mass/time or r = m/t…Take the force equation. If something traveling at a constant speed gains mass. Double the speed and you double the required force. Chapters 1 (classical theory). So energy = force x time x speed. and the belt would coast by itself at constant speed were if not for pulley (motor) friction. and you get f = sm/t. Simplify this mess by canceling the two times and you get E = mss…If a thing like the electron. Again. 7 (how speed affects mass and energy) and 8 (mass-energy equivalence) deals specifically with Special . particles like electrons gain mass as they approach “c”. and erase the f and replace it with sm/t. Here. In the case of something traveling at nearly the speed of light. 122-5) Epstein’s analogies and paradigms are thought provoking yet leave the reader with a greater understanding of Relativity. or E = fts. So you have it in the bag. the force necessary to keep the belt moving is proportional to the belt’s speed. students discuss the main points of the chapter. recorder and skeptic(s) are chosen. Double the rate at which sand falls on the belt and you double the driving force required to keep the belts speed constant.Conceptual Physics. For example. 3 (time dilation and length contraction). 2 (the constancy of the speed of light). If the speed of the belt is maintained as a constant. Students are assigned a chapter to read previously for homework. 4 (methodology to calculating relativistic effects). the necessary force is proportional to how fast he mass is riding the belt is increasing. Paul Hewitt states the Correspondence Principle: “if a new theory is valid. Students are encouraged to keep notes in their journals for further reference. Chapter 1 reviews ‘classical’ relativity from the viewpoints of Galileo and Newton and sets the stage for an acceptance of Special Relativity. then a motor is required to exert a force on the belt to keep it moving…If the rate at which sand falls on the belt is constant. So the force required to keep the belt in motion is force = speed x rate or f = sr. 665) Students may question how the new theory was received by the scientific community and wonder if their frustrations also felt by others. E = (sm/t)(ts). Epstein discusses the characteristics of near-light speed particles in accelerators (like Fermilab). Now the amount of energy put into something is the amount of force applied to it multiplied by the distance the force pushes it…So energy = force x distance.” (p. Several chapters in Relativity Visualized could be used as discussion material for small groups or entire classes to add greater depth to explanation and increase understanding. a force is required to keep the increasing mass traveling at the constant speed. its speed can hardly change and that speed is called c. Then the class reassembles and each group presents their summary sentences.

e. students may search for different websites that offer simulations on Special Relativity. students can begin to explain the universe in a more reasonable way. the instructor can give valuable insight into the progression from the Relativity Game to this point. Through performance rubrics that evaluate group and individual work. calculations and free-response items. Interviews with groups and individuals can also provide strong evidence for learning and compliment the collaborative nature of the learning process in general. group assessments would prove helpful. clarity and content (i. projects can be devised that allow these student to create their own simulations and online learning environments for others. then there is no hope for it. Questions that are similar to those posed in the Relativity Game would establish referents for improvement. Einstein once said that “if at first the idea is not absurd. They can rate these websites for presentation. length and . Only then may students confront absurdity and demand a better framework to eliminate This comment speaks to the heart of constructivist teaching. but also misconceptions. Students may be assigned application problems that require calculations for the relativistic effects on time. not only proper conceptions from the minds and experiences of new learners. The constructivist teacher aims to raise.Elaborate/Extension: For this stage. Evaluation: The Evaluation stage of the constructivist approach to teaching Special Relativity can take many forms. Given the availability of several online simulations via the Internet.thinkarete. These tests can contain objective questions. When teachers accept where a student stands initially with relativity’s postulates and actively builds from that point using social structures within the classroom and available experimental evidence. For students that are able to create website and java applets or Flash simulations. verification of derived results from simulations with Special Relativity).” (http://www.pdffactory. PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. Since students generally perform better on evaluation activities that are similar to those activities used to teach them throughout the unit. students may be lead through a variety of activities. Groups could be created and provided a series of Gedanken experiments to perform. One such activity is to participate in several Gedanken experiments and provide reasoning in the form of journal entries. Traditionally paper-and-pencil tests can be given. Conceptual Physics and Relativity Visualized provide several questions of this nature. Special Relativity should then be ‘absurd’ in the beginning.

Atlantic Canada Science Curriculum: Physics 11/12. Fermilab. Corwin Press. April 1. 2005. Paul Student Services. CA. April 1. 2006.html> “Fermilab Physical Science Data”. Douglas.wikipedia. Teaching High School Science Through Inquiry. . Province of Nova Scotia.fnal. Addison Wesley Longman. 2006. Department of Education. Wikipedia.pdffactory. Insight Press. 1991. April 1. Thousand Oaks. San> PDF created with pdfFactory Pro trial version www. <http://wps. Relativity Visualized. CA. 2002.Works Cited Epstein. Lewis Carroll. Llewellyn. 1999.thinkarete. <http://en. Menlo Park. Addison Wesley> <http://www. <http://www-ed. Conceptual Physics.00. Inc. “ActivPhysics Online”.8722. 2006.html “Special Relativity Postulates”.