Ben and John write about differential length vectors in unexpected coordinates

Physics students’ construction of differential length vectors in an unconventional spherical coordinate system

Benjamin P. Schermerhorn and John R. Thompson
Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010111

Vector calculus and multivariable coordinate systems play a large role in the understanding and calculation of much of the physics in upper-division electricity and magnetism. Differential vector elements represent one key mathematical piece of students’ use of vector calculus. In an effort to examine students’ understanding of non-Cartesian differential length elements, students in junior-level electricity and magnetism were interviewed in pairs and asked to construct a differential length vector for an unconventional spherical coordinate system. One aspect of this study identified symbolic forms invoked by students when building these vector expressions, some previously identified and some novel, given the vector calculus context. Analysis also highlighted several common ideas in students’ concept images of a non-Cartesian differential length vector as they determined their expressions. As no interview initially resulted in the construction of an appropriate differential, analysis addresses the role of the evoked concept images and symbolic forms on students’ performance.


Link to UMaine PERL article archive: Schermerhorn and Thompson on differential length vectors