Ben and John write about differential volume elements in unexpected coordinates

Physics students’ construction and checking of differential volume elements in an unconventional spherical coordinate system

Benjamin P. Schermerhorn and John R. Thompson
Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010112

In upper-division physics courses, students’ use of differential line, area, and volume elements and their facility with the various multivariable coordinate systems consistently go hand in hand. As part of an effort to investigate student understanding of the structure of non-Cartesian coordinate systems and the associated differential elements, we interviewed students (mostly in pairs) in junior-level electricity and magnetism courses at two universities. In a sequence of tasks, students were asked to construct a differential length vector and a differential volume element in an unconventional spherical coordinate system. None of the students were able to arrive at a correct differential length element initially. This work addresses the construction and checking of the volume element. Volume element construction occurred by either combining associated lengths, an attempt to determine sides of a differential cube, or mapping from the existing spherical coordinate system. Students who constructed volume elements from differential length components corrected their length element terms as a result of checking the volume element expression by integration. Other students who relied heavily on spherical coordinates displayed further difficulty connecting dimensionality and projection ideas to differential construction.


Link to post on the UMaine PERL blog: Schermerhorn & Thompson about differential volume elements