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30 min.

The Distance Formula (Star Trek)
A short improvisational role-playing skit based on the Star Trek series in which students explore the definition and notation for position vectors, the importance of choosing an origin, and the geometric nature of the distance formula. \[\vert\vec{r}-\vec{r}^\prime\vert=\sqrt{(x-x^\prime)^2+(y-y^\prime)^2-(z-z^\prime)^2}\]


10 min.

Curvilinear Basis Vectors
Students use their arms to depict (sequentially) the different cylindrical and spherical basis vectors at the location of their shoulder (seen in relation to a specified origin of coordinates: either a set of axes hung from the ceiling of the room or perhaps a piece of furniture or a particular corner of the room).

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Total Charge
In this small group activity, students integrate over non-uniform charge densities in cylindrical and spherical coordinates to calculate total charge.

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Vector Differential--Curvilinear

In this small group activity, students are given a picture as a guide. They then write down an algebraic expression for the vector differential in different coordinate systems (cartesian, cylindrical, spherical).

Use Vector Differential--Rectangular as an introduction. This activity can be done simultaneously with Pineapples and Pumpkins where students or the instructor cut volume elements out of pineapples and/or pumpkins to show the geometry.

1-D Particle-in-a-box

Hamiltonian: \begin{align} \hat{H} &\doteq -\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\frac{\partial^2}{\partial x^2} \end{align} Eigenstates: \begin{align} \left|{n}\right\rangle &\doteq\sqrt{\frac{2}{L}}\, \sin\frac{n\pi x}{L}\\ n&=\left\{1, 2, 3, \dots\right\} \end{align}

Eigenvalue Equations: \begin{align} \hat{H}\left|{n}\right\rangle &=\frac{\pi^2\hbar^2}{2\mu L^2}\, n^2 \left|{n}\right\rangle \\ \end{align}


Hamiltonian: \begin{align} \hat{H} &\doteq -\frac{\hbar^2}{2I}\frac{\partial^2}{\partial \phi^2} \end{align} Eigenstates: \begin{align} \left|{m}\right\rangle &\doteq\frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi r_0}}\, e^{im\phi}\\ m&=\left\{\dots 2, 1, 0, -1, -2, \dots\right\} \end{align} Eigenvalue Equations: \begin{align} \hat{H}\left|{m}\right\rangle &=\frac{\hbar^2}{2I}\, m^2 \left|{m}\right\rangle \\ \hat{L}^2\left|{m}\right\rangle &=\hbar^2\, m^2 \left|{m}\right\rangle \\ \hat{L}_z\left|{m}\right\rangle &=\hbar\, m \left|{m}\right\rangle \end{align}

2-D Particle-in-a-Box

Hamiltonian: \begin{align} \hat{H} &\doteq -\frac{\hbar^2}{2m}\Big(\frac{\partial^2}{\partial x^2} + \frac{\partial^2}{\partial y^2}) \end{align} Eigenstates: \begin{align} \left|{mn}\right\rangle &\doteq\sqrt{\frac{2}{L_x}}\sqrt{\frac{2}{L_y}}\, \sin\frac{m\pi x}{L_x}\sin\frac{n\pi y}{L_y}\\ m&=\left\{1, 2, 3, \dots\right\}\\ n&=\left\{1, 2, 3, \dots\right\} \end{align} Eigenvalue Equations: \begin{align} \hat{H}\left|{mn}\right\rangle &=\frac{\pi^2\hbar^2}{2\mu}\, \left(\frac{m^2}{L_x^2}+\frac{n^2}{L_y^2}\right) \left|{mn}\right\rangle \\ \end{align}


Hamiltonian: \begin{align} \hat{H} &\doteq -\frac{\hbar^2}{2I} \Big[\frac{1}{\sin\theta}\frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \Big(\sin\theta \frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \big) + \frac{1}{\sin^2\theta}\frac{\partial^2}{\partial \phi^2} \Big] \end{align} Eigenstates: \begin{align} \left|{\ell m}\right\rangle &\doteq Y_{\ell}^m(\theta, \phi)\\ &=(-1)^{\frac{m+|m|}{2}}\sqrt{\frac{2\ell+1}{4\pi}\frac{(\ell-m)!}{(\ell+m)!}} \,P_{\ell}^m(\cos\theta)\, e^{im\phi}\\ \ell&=\left\{0, 1, 2, \dots\right\}\\ m&=\left\{\ell, \dots , 0, \dots,-\ell\right\} \end{align} Eigenvalue Equations: \begin{align} \hat{H}\left|{\ell m}\right\rangle &=\frac{\hbar^2}{2I}\, \ell(\ell+1) \left|{\ell m}\right\rangle \\ \hat{L}^2\left|{\ell m}\right\rangle &=\hbar^2\, \ell(\ell+1) \left|{\ell m}\right\rangle \\ \hat{L}_z\left|{\ell m}\right\rangle &=\hbar\, m \left|{\ell m}\right\rangle \end{align}

Hydrogen Atom

Hamiltonian: \begin{align} \hat{H} &\doteq -\frac{\hbar^2}{2\mu} \nabla^2 - \frac{ke^2}{r} \\ &\doteq -\frac{\hbar^2}{2\mu r^2} \Big[\frac{\partial}{\partial r} \Big( r^2 \frac{\partial}{\partial r} \Big) + \frac{1}{\sin\theta}\frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \Big(\sin\theta \frac{\partial}{\partial \theta} \big) + \frac{1}{\sin^2\theta}\frac{\partial^2}{\partial \phi^2} \Big] - \frac{ke^2}{r} \end{align} Eigenstates: \begin{align} \left|{n\ell m}\right\rangle &\doteq R_{n\ell}(r)\, Y_{\ell}^m(\theta, \phi)\\ &=-\sqrt{\left(\frac{2Z}{na_0}\right)^3 \frac{(n-\ell-1)!}{2n[(n+\ell)!]^3}} \left(\frac{2\rho}{n}\right)^{\ell}\, e^{-\frac{\rho}{n}}\, L_{n+\ell}^{2\ell+1}{\scriptstyle{\left(\frac{2\rho}{n}\right)}} (-1)^{\frac{m+|m|}{2}} \sqrt{\frac{2\ell+1}{4\pi}\frac{(\ell-m)!}{(\ell+m)!}} \,P_{\ell}^m(\cos\theta)\, e^{im\phi}\\ \rho&=\frac{Zr}{a_0}\\ n&=\left\{1, 2, 3,\dots\right\}\\ \ell&=\left\{0, 1, 2, \dots, n-1\right\}\\ m&=\left\{\ell, \dots , 0, \dots,-\ell\right\} \end{align} Eigenvalue Equations: \begin{align} \hat{H}\left|{n\ell m}\right\rangle &=-\frac{1}{2}\left(\frac{Ze^2}{4\pi\epsilon_0}\right)^2 \frac{\mu}{\hbar^2}\,\frac{1}{n^2}\, \left|{n \ell m}\right\rangle \\ &=-13.6 \text{eV}\,\frac{1}{n^2}\, \left|{n \ell m}\right\rangle \\ \hat{L}^2\left|{n \ell m}\right\rangle &=\hbar^2\, \ell(\ell+1) \left|{n \ell m}\right\rangle \\ \hat{L}_z\left|{n \ell m}\right\rangle &=\hbar\, m \left|{n \ell m}\right\rangle \end{align}

  • Found in: Central Forces course(s)

Small Group Activity

60 min.

Systems of Equations Compare and Contrast

Systems of Equations: Compare and Contrast

Small Group Directions

  1. Solve your assigned system of equations using any algebraic method. Show you work and be ready to explain how you solved it.
  2. Also graph the system of equations and show how the solution appears on your graph. You may use graphing technology such as Desmos.

Group Roles

Facilitator: Read the directions out loud and check whether everyone understands each other. “How should we start?” “How do you know?”

Team Captain: Help your team members step up and step back. “How do you know?” “What do you think?”

Resource Manager: Help your group get unstuck. “Is this working?” “What else could we try?” “Should we ask a team question?”

Recorder/Reporter: Be prepared to share out in the whole class discussion. “How should I explain...?”


  1. \[y=-3x\\4x+y=2\]
  2. \[y=7x-5\\2x+y=13\]
  3. \[x=-5y-4\\x-4y=23\]
  4. \[x+y=10\\y=x-4\]
  5. \[y=5-x\\4x+2y=10\]
  6. \[3x+5y=23\\y=x+3\]
  7. \[y=-x-2\\2x+3y=-9\]
  8. \[y=2x-3\\-2x+y=1\]
  9. \[x=\frac{1}{2}y+\frac{1}{2}\\2x+y=-1\]
  10. \[a=2b+4\\b-2a=16\]
  11. \[y=3-2x\\4x+2y=6\]
  12. \[y=x+1\\x-y=1\]
(Adapted from CPM Core Connections)

Whole Class Directions

  1. Each group will share out how you solved your system of equations.
  2. Listen to each group and think about similarities and differences.
  3. Ask questions about anything you do not understand or you disagree with.
  4. You do not need to write anything during the whole class discussion, but you will have an exit ticket to see what you learned from the discussion.

Exit Ticket: Systems of Equations Compare and Contrast

Sheila missed class today. She tried to solve Problem 8 on her own, but she thinks she made a mistake because -3 does not equal 1. \begin{align} &y=2x-3\\ &-2x+y=1 \end{align} \begin{align} &-2x+(2x-3)=1\\ &-2x+2x-3=1\\ &0-3=1\\ &-3=1 \end{align}

Explain to Sheila what happened, using as much detail as possible to help her understand this type of problem.


This Compare and Contrast activity is based on the College Preparatory Mathematics (CPM) Core Connections Algebra Parent Guide with Extra Practice, freely available here. CPM is a problem based curriculum with many conceptual problems for students to work on in small groups in class. The parent guide provides examples, exercises, and solutions for students to work alone and/or with parent support if they miss class or need extra practice. As such, the parent guide is one aspect of the CPM curriculum most focused on practice of procedures. The attached problem set is copied exactly from the CPM Parent Guide; the surrounding student instructions were written by Alyssa Sayavedra.

Special Cases of note

Problems 8 and 12 have no solution while Problem 11 has infinite solutions. It is important to include these problems, but be prepared for small groups to get tripped up by them. Many students, when solving equations, expect the “answer” to be a value. They may struggle to interpret an equation that is always or never true.

All other problems have one solution with integer coordinates.

Some problems in this set are easier than others. If any group finishes early, they can be encouraged to complete a second problem. Problem 1 is the most straightforward since y is equal to only one term. The next easiest problems are 2, 3, 4, and 8, because they do not require distribution after substitution.

Problems 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 11 can be solved using the Equal Values Method without introducing new fractions. The Equal Values Method is a variant of substitution in which students solve both equations for the same variable, then set the equations equal to each other, resulting in a single equation in one variable. This method is easier for many students because it results in a simpler one variable equation and is less prone to distribution errors. But it is usually not worth introducing fractions into the problem in order to use this method.

Problems 5, 9 and 11 can be simplified by either multiplying or dividing an entire equation by 2. It is unusual for students to think of this strategy at this stage, but it can be a helpful preview of the elimination method. This method also removes the fractions in Problem 9.

Small variations in notation can easily trip students up. Problem 10 uses a and b instead of x and y. Problems 3 and 9 have one equation solved for x instead of y. Problems 4 and 6 have the second equation solved for y instead of the first. Do not be surprised if some students still solve the first equation for y and plug it into the second.

Suggestions for Facilitating Small Group Work

Remind students of class norms for productive and respectful group work. Assign one problem to each group, including at least problems 2, 4, 6, 8, 11 and 12. Walk once or twice around the class within the first five minutes to make sure all small groups understand how to get started and are making progress. Make sure students understand the directions and have started to dig into the mathematics, but avoid giving strategic suggestions at this stage. The purpose of the small group time is for students to wrestle with the tricky bits of one problem. If a group chooses an inefficient strategy or makes an error, monitor their frustration level, but try to allow them to pursue it in some detail before suggesting there may be an easier method. The first 3 questions (from Schoenfeld) assist students with metacognitive monitoring of their own problem solving process. Whenever possible, allow students to check their own work using graphing technology and/or substitution of their answers rather than checking it for them.

Some good questions to ask groups during this time are:

  • “What are you doing?”
  • “Why are you doing that?”
  • “Is it working?”
  • “Are you done?”
  • “Have you found values for all the unknowns?”
  • “How could you check your work?”
  • “Can you graph the problem to check your work?”
  • “Can you substitute these numbers back in to check your work?”
  • “What would you expect to see on the graph?”

Suggestions for Facilitating Whole Class Discussion

Remind students of their norms for active listening during presentations, respect for presenters and treating mistakes as learning opportunities. Ask the reporters from at least 4-6 groups to share out their work (the reporter role should rotate regularly, even every class period). If not all groups will present, give priority to students or groups who present less often but who have done excellent work, to groups that have tried innovative strategies or made important revisions, and to the most important special cases. When sequencing the presentations, start with easier and/or typical examples. Often, it should work well to simply present the examples you choose in numerical order. Close with an exit ticket like “Explain one way you revised your work or thinking today” or “Use Jorge's method to solve this new problem.” You can also create an exit ticket in advance, such as the one attached.

Students, working in pairs, use their left arms to demonstrate time evolution in spin 1/2 quantum systems.

Consider a system of \(n\) different masses \(m_i\), interacting with each other and being acted on by external forces. We can write Newton's second law for the positions \(\vec{r}_i\) of each of these masses with respect to a fixed origin \(\cal{O}\), thereby obtaining a system of equations governing the motion of the masses. \begin{align} m_1 \frac{d^2\, \vec{r}_1}{dt^2} &=\vec{F}_1+\;\; 0\;\, +\vec{f}_{12}+\vec{f}_{13}+\;\,\dots\;\, +\vec{f}_{1n}\nonumber\\ m_2 \frac{d^2\, \vec{r}_2}{dt^2} &=\vec{F}_2+\vec{f}_{21}+\;\; 0\;\, +\vec{f}_{23}+\;\,\dots\;\, +\vec{f}_{2n} \label{NewtonSystem}\\ \vdots\nonumber\\ m_n \frac{d^2\, \vec{r}_n}{dt^2} &=\vec{F}_n+\vec{f}_{n1}+\vec{f}_{n2}+\dots+\vec{f}_{n(n-1)}+0\quad\nonumber \end{align} Here, we have chosen the notation \(\vec{F}_i\) for the net external forces acting on mass \(m_i\) and \(\vec{f}_{ij}\) for the internal force of mass \(m_j\) acting on \(m_i\).

In general, each internal force \(\vec{f}_{ij}\) will depend on the positions of the particles \(\vec{r}_i\) and \(\vec{r}_j\) in some complicated way, making \((\ref{NewtonSystem})\), a set of coupled differential equations. To solve \((\ref{NewtonSystem})\), we first need to decouple the differential equations, i.e. find an equivalent set of differential equations in which each equation contains only one variable.

The weak form of Newton's third law states that the force \(\vec{f}_{12}\) of \(m_2\) on \(m_1\) is equal and opposite to the force \(\vec{f}_{21}\) of \(m_1\) on \(m_2\). We see that each internal force appears twice in the system of equations \((\ref{NewtonSystem})\), once with a positive sign and once with a negative sign. Therefore, if we add all of the equations together, the internal forces will all cancel, leaving: \begin{equation} \sum_{i=1}^n m_i \frac{d^2 \vec{r}_i}{dt^2} =\sum_{i=1}^n\vec{F}_i\label{NewtonCOM} \end{equation}

Notice what a surprising equation \((\ref{NewtonCOM})\) is. The right-hand side directs us to add up all of the external forces, each of which acts on a different mass; something you were taught never to do in introductory physics.

The left-hand side of \((\ref{NewtonCOM})\) directs us to add up (the second derivatives of) \(n\) “weighted" position vectors pointing from the origin to different masses. We can simplify the left-hand side of \((\ref{NewtonCOM})\) if we multiply and divide by the total mass \(M=m_1+m_2+\dots+m_n\) and use the linearity of differentiation to “factor out” the derivative operator: \begin{align} \sum_{i=1}^n m_i \frac{d^2 \vec{r}_i}{dt^2} &=M\frac{d^2}{dt^2} \left(\sum_{i=1}^n \frac{m_i}{M}\, \vec{r}_i\right)\label{CenterOfMass1}\\ &=M\frac{d^2 \vec{R}_{cm}}{dt^2}\label{CenterOfMass2} \end{align} We recognize (or define) the quantity in the parentheses on the right-hand side of \((\ref{CenterOfMass1})\) as the position vector \(\vec{R}_{cm}\) from the origin to the “center of mass” of the system of particles, i.e. \begin{equation} \vec{R}_{cm}=\sum_{i=1}^n\frac{m_i}{M}\, \vec{r}_i\label{CenterOfMass3} \end{equation} With these simplifications, equation (\ref{NewtonCOM}) becomes: \begin{equation} M \frac{d^2 \vec{R}_{cm}}{dt^2} =\sum_{i=1}^n\vec{F}_i\label{NewtonCOM2} \end{equation} which has the form of Newton's 2nd Law for a fictitious particle with mass \(M\) sitting at the center of mass of the system of particles and acted on by all of the external forces from the original system.

We can define the momentum of the center of mass as the total mass times the time derivative of the position of the center of mass: \begin{equation} \vec{P}_{cm}=M\frac{d\vec{R}_{cm}}{dt} \end{equation} If there are no external forces acting, then the acceleration of the center of mass is zero and the momentum of the center of mass is constant in time (conserved). \begin{equation} M\frac{d^2 \vec{R}_{cm}}{dt^2}=\frac{d\vec{P}_{cm}}{dt}=0 \label{MomentumConservation} \end{equation}

Notice that the entire discussion above applies even if all of the internal forces are zero \(\vec{f}_{ij}=0\), i.e. none of the particles have any way of knowing that the others are even present. Such particles are called non-interacting. The position of the center of mass of the system will still move according to equation \((\ref{NewtonCOM2})\).

  • Found in: Central Forces course(s)

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Intro to Stern-Gerlach Experiments 1
Students become acquainted with the Spins Simulations of Stern-Gerlach Experiments and record measurement probabilities of spin components for a spin-1/2 system. Students start developing intuitions for the results of quantum measurements for this system.

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.
Students use Tinker Toys to represent each component in a two-state quantum spin system in all three standard bases (\(x\), \(y\), and \(z\)). Through a short series of instructor-led prompts, students explore the difference between overall phase (which does NOT change the state of the system) and relative phase (which does change the state of the system). This activity is optional in the Arms Sequence Arms Sequence for Complex Numbers and Quantum States.
Students, working in pairs, use the Arms representations to represent states of spin 1/2 system. Through a short series of instructor-led prompts, students explore the difference between overall phase (which does NOT distinguish quantum states) and relative phase (which does distinguish quantum states).

Small White Board Question

10 min.

Vector Differential--Rectangular

In this introductory lecture/SWBQ, students are given a picture as a guide. They then write down an algebraic expression for the vector differential in rectangular coordinates for coordinate equals constant paths.

This activity can be done as a mini-lecture/SWBQ as an introduction to Vector Differential--Curvilinear where students find the vector differential in cylindrical and spherical coordinates..

In this lecture, the instructor guides a discussion about translating between bra-ket notation and wavefunction notation for quantum systems.

Small Group Activity

60 min.

Going from Spin States to Wavefunctions
Students review using the Arms representation to represent states for discrete quantum systems and connecting the Arms representation to histogram and matrix representation. The student then extend the Arms representation to begin exploring the continuous position basis.

Mathematica Activity

30 min.

Using Technology to Visualize Potentials
Begin by prompting the students to brainstorm different ways to represent a three dimensional scalar field on a 2-D surface (like their paper or a whiteboard). The students use a pre-made Sage code or a Mathematica worksheet to visualize the electrostatic potential of several distributions of charges. The computer algebra systems demonstrate several different ways of plotting the potential.
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.

The Hillside (Updated)
Students work in groups to measure the steepest slope and direction on a plastic surface, and to compare their result with the gradient vector, obtained by measuring its components (the slopes in the coordinate directions).
  • Found in: Surfaces/Bridge Workshop, Problem-Solving course(s) Found in: Workshop Presentations 2023 sequence(s)

Small Group Activity

120 min.

Box Sliding Down Frictionless Wedge
Students solve for the equations of motion of a box sliding down (frictionlessly) a wedge, which itself slides on a horizontal surface, in order to answer the question "how much time does it take for the box to slide a distance \(d\) down the wedge?". This activities highlights finding kinetic energies when the coordinate system is not orthonormal and checking special cases, functional behavior, and dimensions.

Computational Activity

120 min.

Electric field for a waffle cone of charge
Students integrate numerically to find the electric field due to a cone of surface charge, and then visualize the result. This integral can be done in either spherical or cylindrical coordinates, giving students a chance to reason about which coordinate system would be more convenient.
  • electric field cone
    Found in: Computational Physics Lab II course(s) Found in: Computational integrating charge distributions sequence(s)

Small Group Activity

30 min.

The Hillside
Students work in groups to measure the steepest slope and direction at a given point on a plastic surface and to compare their result with the gradient vector, obtained by measuring its components (the slopes in the coordinate directions).
  • Found in: Vector Calculus I course(s) Found in: Gradient Sequence, Workshop Presentations 2023 sequence(s)

Small Group Activity

30 min.

Which Way is North?
Students construct two different rectangular coordinate systems and corresponding vector bases, then compare computations done with each.

Whole Class Activity

10 min.

Curvilinear Coordinates Introduction
First, students are shown diagrams of cylindrical and spherical coordinates. Common notation systems are discussed, especially that physicists and mathematicians use opposite conventions for the angles \(\theta\) and \(\phi\). Then students are asked to check their understanding by sketching several coordinate equals constant surfaces on their small whiteboards.

Whole Class Activity

10 min.

Pineapples and Pumpkins

There are two versions of this activity:

As a whole class activity, the instructor cuts a pumpkin in order to produce a small volume element \(d\tau\), interspersing their work with a sequence of small whiteboard questions. This version of the activity is described here.

As a small group activity, students are given pineapple rounds and pumpkin wedges to explore area and volume elements in cylindrical and spherical coordinate systems. In this version of the activity, the fruit is distributed to the students with appropriate children's pumpkin cutting equipment, as part of activities Vector Differential--Curvilinear, Scalar Surface and Volume Elements, or Vector Surface and Volume Elements.

  • Found in: Static Fields, AIMS Maxwell, Surfaces/Bridge Workshop, Problem-Solving course(s) Found in: Integration Sequence sequence(s)

Small Group Activity

5 min.

Constant Lines in the \(u\), \(v\)-Plane

Students are asked to draw lines of constant \(u\) and \(v\) in a \(u,v\) coordinate system. Then, in the same coordinate system, students must draw lines of constant \(x\) and constant \(y\) when

\[x(u,v)=u \] and \[y(u,v)=\frac{1}{2}u+3v. \]