A Comparison of Programming Languages and Algebraic Notation as Expressive Languages for Physics

  • Bruce L. Sherin


The purpose of the present work is to consider some of the implications of replacing, for the purposes of physics instruction, algebraic notation with a programming language. Whatis novel is that, more than previous work, I take seriously the possibility that a programming language can function as the principle representational system for physics instruction. This means treating programming as potentially having a similar status and performing a similar function to algebraic notation in physics learning. In order to address the implications of replacing the usual notational system with programming, I begin with two informal conjectures: (1) Programming-based representations might be easier for students to understand than equation-based representations, and (2) programming-based representations might privilege a somewhat different ``intuitive vocabulary.'' If the second conjecture is correct, it means that the nature of the understanding associated with programming-physics might be fundamentally different than the understanding associated with algebra-physics.

In order to refine and address these conjectures, I introduce a framework based around two theoretical constructs, what I callinterpretive devices and symbolic forms. A conclusion of this work is that algebra-physics can be characterized as a physics of balance and equilibrium, and programming-physics as a physics of processes and causation. More generally, this work provides a theoretical and empirical basis for understanding how the use of particular symbol systems affects students' conceptualization.

algebra cognition physics programming representations 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bruce L. Sherin
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Education and Social PolicyNorthwestern UniversityEvanston

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