Physics education research project leads to cover story in teaching journal

January 17, 2007

The above photo, taken by Ruth Dusenbery, is featured on the cover of the January 2007 issue of "The Physics Teacher." In the photo, from left, UM-Dearborn students James McFarland, Brandy Gronas and Josiah Hudson demonstrate a new experiment in the lab.

DEARBORN / Jan. 17, 2007---A physics education research project led by University of Michigan-Dearborn Prof. Jeffrey Prentis is featured on the cover of the January 2007 issue of The Physics Teacher magazine, a publication devoted to innovations in teaching introductory physics.

Prentis and students Bryan Fulton, Carol Hesse and Laura Mazzino co-authored an article for the magazine, titled “Elliptical Orbit => Inverse Square Force.”

“Based on this research, a new laboratory experiment--the Orbital Mechanics Laboratory--has been designed for UM-Dearborn’s introductory physics course,” according to Prentis.

The magazine’s cover photo was taken by Ruth Dusenbery, director of the UM-Dearborn’s Science Learning Center, and features students Brandy Gronas, Josiah Hudson and James McFarland in the lab performing the new experiment.

The topic of Prentis’ research involves the connection between the shape of a planet’s orbit and the nature of the force acting on the planet.

“In 1609, Johannes Kepler reported that the planet Mars moves in an elliptical orbit around the Sun,” according to Prentis. “We now know that the ellipse is the special mathematical curve that characterizes the shape of all celestial orbits. The Earth, the space shuttle, and Halley’s Comet all move along a (different) elliptical path.”

A celebrated problem of 17th century natural philosophy is the "Kepler Problem" or "Given an ellipse, find the force," Prentis said.  Isaac Newton’s solution to the Kepler Problem represents one of the “top ten” calculations in the history of science.  Because of the calculus involved, this calculation is normally done in an upper-level physics course.  But with the research done by Prentis, "students taking physics for the first time in high school or college can now come face-to-face with the Kepler Problem and experience first-hand Newton’s elegant geometric solution."


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