An Unintended Benefit of an Interdisciplinary Course

I co-teach an interdisciplinary course in AP Physics 1 and Honors Precalculus. Combining these two courses, which we did for the first time last year, was a no brainer: much of the math we do in the precalculus course ties directly to the math needed in physics; we tend to do some physics applications in a precal course, like projectile motion and simple harmonic motion; and there’s a big emphasis in setting up and solving word problems in both courses (although in physics they’re just called “problems”).

There are some other ways to connect the courses, too. Physicists and mathematicians work with vectors with different levels of rigor and formality, for example, which allows us to highlight the difference between “doing math” and “using math to do science.” Similary, what we can know or prove in math is very different than what we can know or prove in science, yet there are similarities in the rigorous structures the two disciplines use to collect evidence and draw conclusions. Seeing and understanding these parallels seems to help the students understand their work in both disciplines better than they otherwise would.

Today, we discovered a new benefit of having this interdisciplinary course and using team teaching for it. Our students recently took a quiz on solving non-right triangles, and even though they’ve been quizzed on this before, many of them are still making the same mistake: failing to check for multiple solutions in the SSA case. They also took a physics quiz that had an object moving down an incline plane before launching off the end of the ramp and falling to the ground. They did the first part of the problem just fine, rotating their coordinate axes to be parallel and perpendicular to the incline plane. When they got to the second part of the problem, which dealt with projectile motion, many of them made the same mistake: they left their axes rotated but solved the problem as if they weren’t.

Were we teaching these classes separately, we each would have addressed these mistakes in our own ways and moved on with class. Because we’re co-teaching and looking at student work together, we realized that the mistakes on both quizzes really stem from the same issue. In both cases, the students needed to recognize what kind of problem they were dealing with and then proceed based on that recognition. We were able to talk this through with our class, helping them see that this was less an issue of knowing specific content and more an issue of how to approach and solve problems. Had this not been an interdisciplinary course, it’s likely that no one, including the teachers, would have made this connection. Score one for interdisciplinary learning.

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