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Small Group Activity

30 min.

Covariation in Thermal Systems
Students consider how changing the volume of a system changes the internal energy of the system. Students use plastic graph models to explore these functions.

Small Group Activity

60 min.

Multivariable Pictionary
Students draw the 3D graphs of equations using three variables. They make choices for drawing a stack of curves in parallel planes and a curve in a perpendicular plane (e.g. substituting in values for \(x\), \(y\), or \(z\). )
This mini-lecture demonstrates the relationship between \(df\) on the tangent plane to its “components“ in coordinate directions, leading to the multivariable chain rule.

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Operators & Functions
Students are asked to:
  • Test to see if one of the given functions is an eigenfunction of the given operator
  • See if they can write the functions that are found not to be eigenfunctions as a linear combination of eigenfunctions.
  • Found in: Quantum Fundamentals course(s)

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Murder Mystery Method
For each of the following vector fields, find a potential function if one exists, or argue that none exists.
  • \(\boldsymbol{\vec{F}} = (3x^2 + \tan y)\,\boldsymbol{\hat{x}} + (3y^2 + x\sec^2 y) \,\boldsymbol{\hat{y}}\)
  • \(\boldsymbol{\vec{G}} = y\,\boldsymbol{\hat{x}} - x\,\boldsymbol{\hat{y}}\)
  • \(\boldsymbol{\vec{H}} = (2xy + y^2 \sin z) \,\boldsymbol{\hat{x}} + (x^2 + z + 2xy\sin z) \,\boldsymbol{\hat{y}} + (y + z + xy^2 \cos z) \,\boldsymbol{\hat{z}}\)
  • \(\boldsymbol{\vec{K}} = yz \,\boldsymbol{\hat{x}} + xz \,\boldsymbol{\hat{y}}\)

Main ideas

  • Finding potential functions.

Students love this activity. Some groups will finish in 10 minutes or less; few will require as much as 30 minutes. *


  • Fundamental Theorem for line integrals
  • The Murder Mystery Method




  • whiteboards and pens


  • Revisit integrating conservative vector fields along various paths, including reversing the orientation and integrating around closed paths.


In the Classroom

  • We recommend having the students work in groups of 2 on this activity, and not having them turn anything in.
  • Most students will treat the last example as 2-dimensional, giving the answer \(xyz\). Ask these students to check their work by taking the gradient; most will include a \(\boldsymbol{\hat{z}}\) term. Let them think this through. The correct answer of course depends on whether one assumes that \(z\) is constant; we have deliberately left this ambiguous.
  • It is good and proper that students want to add together multivariable terms. Keep returning to the gradient, something they know well. It is better to discover the guidelines themselves.

Subsidiary ideas

  • 3-d vector fields do not necessarily have a \(\boldsymbol{\hat{z}}\)-component!


A challenging question to ponder is why a surface fails to exist for nonconservative fields. Using an example such as \(y\,\boldsymbol{\hat{x}}+\boldsymbol{\hat{y}}\), prompt students to plot the field and examine its magnitude at various locations. Suggest piecing together level sets. There is serious geometry lurking that entails smoothness. Wrestling with this is healthy.

Essay questions

Write 3-5 sentences describing the connection between derivatives and integrals in the single-variable case. In other words, what is the one-dimensional version of MMM? Emphasize that much of vector calculus is generalizing concepts from single-variable theory.


  • The derivative check for conservative vector fields can be described using the same type of diagrams as used in the Murder Mystery Method; this is just moving down the diagram (via differentiation) from the row containing the components of the vector field, rather than moving up (via integration). We believe this should not be mentioned until after this lab.

    When done in 3-d, this makes a nice introduction to curl --- which however is not needed until one is ready to do Stokes' Theorem. We would therefore recommend delaying this entire discussion, including the 2-d case, until then.

  • Work out the Murder Mystery Method using polar basis vectors, by reversing the process of taking the gradient in this basis.
  • Revisit the example in the Ampère's Law lab, using the Fundamental Theorem to explain the results. This can be done without reference to a basis, but it is worth computing \(\boldsymbol{\vec\nabla}\phi\) in a polar basis.

One way to write volume charge densities without using piecewise functions is to use step \((\Theta)\) or \(\delta\) functions. Consider a spherical shell with charge density \[\rho (\vec{r})=\alpha3e^{(k r)^3} \]

between the inner radius \(a\) and the outer radius \(b\). The charge density is zero everywhere else.

  1. (2 pts) What are the dimensions of the constants \(\alpha\) and \(k\)?
  2. (2 pts) By hand, sketch a graph the charge density as a function of \(r\) for \(\alpha > 0\) and \(k>0\) .
  3. (2 pts) Use step functions to write this charge density as a single function valid everywhere in space.

Using either this Geogebra applet or this Mathematica notebook, explore the wave functions on a ring. (Note: The Geogebra applet may be a little easier to use and understand and is accessible if you don't have access to Mathematica, but it is more limited in the wave functions that you can represent. Also, the animation is pretty jumpy in some browsers, especially Firefox. Imagine that the motion is smooth.)
  1. Look at graphs of the following states \begin{align} \Phi_1(\phi)&=\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}(\left|{2}\right\rangle +\left|{-2}\right\rangle )\\ \Phi_2(\phi)&=\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}(\left|{2}\right\rangle -\left|{-2}\right\rangle )\\ \Phi_3(\phi)&=\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}(\left|{2}\right\rangle +i\left|{-2}\right\rangle ) \end{align} Write a short description of how these states differ from each other.
  2. Find a state for which the probability density does not depend on time. Write the state in both ket and wave function notation. These are called stationary states. Generalize your result to give a characterization of the set of all possible states that are stationary states.
  3. Find a state that is right-moving. Write the state in both ket and wave function notation. Generalize your result to give a characterization of the set of all possible states that are right-moving.
  4. Find a state that is a standing wave. Write the state in both ket and wave function notation. Generalize your result to give a characterization of the set of all possible states that are standing waves.
  • Found in: Central Forces course(s)

Small White Board Question

5 min.

Adding Functions Pointwise
Overview paragraph here.
  • Found in: Static Fields course(s)

Small Group Activity

10 min.

Guess the Fourier Series from a Graph
The students are shown the graph of a function that is a superposition of three harmonic functions and asked to guess the harmonic terms of the Fourier series. Students then use prewritten Sage code to verify the coefficients from their guess. The program allows the students to enter functions of their own choice as well as the one that is preset.
  • Found in: Oscillations and Waves, None course(s)

Computational Activity

120 min.

Sinusoidal basis set
Students compute inner products to expand a wave function in a sinusoidal basis set. This activity introduces the inner product for wave functions, and the idea of approximating a wave function using a finite set of basis functions.

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Chain Rule Measurement
This small group activity using surfaces combines practice with the multivariable chain rule while emphasizing numerical representations of derivatives. Students work in small groups to measure partial derivatives in both rectangular and polar coordinates, then verify their results using the chain rule. The whole class wrap-up discussion emphasizes the relationship between a directional derivative in the \(r\)-direction and derivatives in \(x\)- and \(y\)-directions using the chain rule.
  • Found in: Vector Calculus I course(s)

Small Group Activity

5 min.

The Resistors
This small group activity is designed to provide practice with the multivariable chain rule. Students determine a particular rate of change using given information involving other rates of change. The discussion emphasizes the equivalence of a variety of approaches, including the use of differentials. Good “review” problem; can also be used as a homework problem.
  • Found in: Vector Calculus I, Surfaces/Bridge Workshop course(s)

Small Group Activity

5 min.

Finding a Chain Rule
Students use chain rule diagrams to construct a multivariable chain rule in terms of differentials.
  • Found in: Surfaces/Bridge Workshop course(s)

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Wavefunctions on a Quantum Ring
This activity lets students explore translating a wavefunction that isn't obviously made up of eigenstates at first glance into ket and matrix form. Then students explore wave functions, probabilities in a region, expectation values, and what wavefunctions can tell you about measurements of \(L_z\).