We speak with Debora Katz, United States Naval Academy, and author of Physics for Scientists and Engineers: Foundations and Connections.


Debora Katz has a PhD from the University of Minnesota, where she won a fellowship that included training by well-known figures in physics education research (PER). Today, she is a professor of physics at the United States Naval Academy, where she teaches not just physics majors, but students with a diverse set of abilities, interests, learning styles, and preconceptions. To engage her students in the process of learning physics, she uses many PER techniques.

What inspired you to write this book?
There’s a wide range of pedagogy in introductory physics, but one thing is always true: Students do better when they read their textbook. Unfortunately, many textbooks were originally written for previous generations of students, and today’s students don’t find them readable. My primary goal in writing this book was to make it readable without compromising content, because I believe that our students are willing and able to read a book they find engaging.

At Cengage Learning we are fully committed to engagement. Can you tell us what makes your book so engaging?
Students in required courses often tell us that they don’t understand how physics fits into their lives. So to make physics engaging, I use case studies in my book and classroom. Case studies relate the everyday experience of students and scientists to the concepts, principles, and tools of physics. In fact, in my class students write their own case studies, analyzing fun topics, such as sports, history, and even movies, in terms of physics concepts.

What do you want students to get out of working through the case studies?
Case studies help students realize how the preconceptions they have developed over decades of observation tie into the formalism of physics. For example, they know that seat belts keep passengers in cars, but they are usually unaware of the connection between that fact and Newton’s first law. To make and reinforce these connections, some case studies use a dialogue between fictional students to highlight and clarify common erroneous preconceptions. Without case studies, students think that the formal concepts or physics are unrelated to the real world.

How did you integrate case studies from your book into Enhanced WebAssign?
Physicists love solving problems. So much so, that even after finding a solution, they ask more questions: “What else can I do with this solution?” “What have I learned?” or “Is there a better solution?” Likewise, the case studies in my textbook are complete, but there are always more questions. So for each case study in the textbook, I have written a companion tutorial. Some tutorials are there to help students who may need a little guidance before tackling the case study in the textbook. Other tutorials help students look deeper at a particular case study.

Integrated Tutorials in Enhanced WebAssign feature feedback written by you. What were you mindful of when you wrote them?
I was trying to think of common errors. I also want to build students’ confidence. We often forget that physics is probably the toughest course our students are taking. They quickly feel that it is something they just cannot do. Sometimes I tried to make a question a softball, to build confidence. I figured that a student doing a tutorial needs to feel an emotional reward for putting in extra effort, so I tried to make a place for positive feedback.

Why was it important to integrate your textbook with Enhanced WebAssign?
When learning a difficult subject like physics, some students need to use resources beyond the textbook. However, slight differences between these resources may confuse a novice. For example, I use the term rotational inertia, while others refer to this same quantity as moment of inertia. (I have my reasons. Moment of inertia sounds too much like momentum—a completely unrelated concept, and it also sounds like moment—a term used in engineering to mean torque.) A student using another resource to better understand rotational inertia would be further confused to find a discussion about moment of inertia. Integrating my textbook into Enhanced WebAssign means that the resources reinforce one another.

To find out more how this text engages students to go beyond the quantitative, read the case study describing the use of Physics for Scientists and Engineers: Foundations and Connections at Clemson University.