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Ring Sequence: Chopping and Adding

Students who are just beginning upper-division courses are being asked to simultaneously learn physics concepts, use mathematical processes in new ways, apply geometric reasoning, and use extended multi-step problem solving. Having students successfully deal with a problem such as finding the magnetic field in all space due to a spinning ring of charge is a significant challenge. If we are to avoid doing the thinking for them and creating a template they can use, then we must create a sequence of learning opportunities that allow them to genuinely develop for themselves the ability to solve a problem like this.

We created a sequence of five small group activities that help students do deeper thinking while making each of the steps manageable. These five activities take roughly 30 to 60 minutes each and are designed to be used over the course of one or two months in conjunction with other forms of instruction such as lecture, individual homework, computer visualizations, and kinesthetic activities.

A more in-depth discussion of the rationale, student thinking, and the way these activities fit together can be found in a discussion of how these activities break the learning into manageable pieces

Activities Included

This activity is also part of the Power Series Sequence . Students use what they learned from The Distance Between Two Points - Star Trek and apply what they know about power series approximations to find a general expression and asymptotic solution to the electrostatic potential due to two point charges. Though the charge distribution students consider is elementary, the ideas and techniques used are applied later on the more difficult ring of charge.

Many students coming into their junior have likely seen the electrostatic potential due to a ring of charge with high symmetry. In this small group activity, students aim to generalize the expression for the potential by applying what they have learned about charge densities, power series approximations, and various geometries. In order to accomplish this, students practice breaking the problem up into “manageable” pieces; finding a relationship for the charge density, understanding the geometry of the problem, setting up the correct integral, and then using power series approximations to evaluate the potential in some given region. Solving this problem is a big step for many students, and also prepares them for the more difficult problem of finding the electric field due to a ring of charge.

Now students have had experience calculating the electrostatic potential due to a ring of charge, another layer of complexity is added to the problem. In this small group activity, students use the Coulomb definition of the electric field and work out the electric field due to a ring of charge. Again, students must break this problem up into multiple steps, making the problem as a whole more manageable. Moreover, this problem exemplifies the Paradigms “potential first” strategy; using techniques from the previous activity, students tend to have an easier time making the transition from scalar fields to vector fields.

A Master's Project Paper describing the sequence of the five E&M activities:

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