The teaching and understanding of electromagnetism require a broad abstraction that is why we must perform activities that help students better assimilate and relate the concept.
During the first semesters of engineers’ undergraduate education, the knowledge taught in each of the courses is very often unconnected, since they are addressed independently. If we add to this that the learning topics have a certain degree of abstraction and complexity, the outcome is that few students will clearly understand this knowledge. Electromagnetism is an area of physics that requires abstraction in the topics handled and the mathematics used.
The magnetic field surrounding Earth is perhaps the most representative and sensitive electromagnetic element that exists naturally, but since it is not visible to the human eye, its comprehension, quantification and usefulness may appear to be complex and is overlooked by most people. In addition, there are electromagnetic weather phenomena in the atmosphere, such as storms, while, on a smaller scale, the magnetic field can stimulate the growth of plants and animals, and allow birds to navigate on their long migrations across the planet. In terms of the technology we use on a daily basis, mobile devices also use electrical and magnetic elements in order to function. Moreover, these concepts are applied in the area of healthcare for the early detection of some diseases, such as cancer, through nanotechnological devices that use electromagnetic phenomena.
Teaching and understanding electromagnetism is of utmost importance, because it forms part of our daily lives and our ecosystem, although it also requires a broad abstraction. Consequently, we recently implemented, together with other fellow faculty members at Campus Estado de México, a program based on the development of scientific visualizations in the area of electromagnetism. The experience was called Maxwell-lab, in honor of the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who at the end of the 19th century formulated the equations that describe electromagnetism.
We designed an activity in which we aligned the contents and topics that are common to three subjects: mathematics, physics and programming. In this activity, students developed a visual application that serves to understand concepts such as electric fields, magnetic fields, voltage and the movement of electric charges, which, in order to be simulated and visualized, require the use of scientific computation concepts that were represented in interactive animations, taking advantage of the underlying mathematics and numerical methods to resolve the representation and visualization procedures. In nature, these concepts as such are not observable at first glance, since we can only see their effects; hence the importance of this integrating activity.
Students developed a program, using the scientific visualization software Mathematica and Matlab, to modify certain parameters and know how electric charges move around the magnetic field, and see particles on the trajectories of the magnetic field, masses, electric charges, positions , intensities of electric currents, so that, as a whole, they can visually reproduce the abstract concepts of electromagnetism, thus achieving a high level of comprehension. To accomplish this, they first had to understand the mathematics involved in the process in order to portray these theoretical concepts of electromagnetism in the simulation. This practical activity generated a comprehensive understanding and mastery of the abstract topics of the course, supporting the traditional teaching methods for this discipline.
This activity took place across a semester, offering an experience that allowed students to understand the complexity of its application and the way in which different disciplines are integrated in engineering settings to solve problems. This filled a common void in engineering degrees since their curricula do not always generate adequate spaces for the integration of the diverse scientific disciplines. Therefore, I would like to invite teachers to continue to explore the design of activities that spark our students’ curiosity, improve their understanding and have a creative effect on their learning.
About the author
Francisco Delgado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics and has worked on educational innovation for science and engineering.