The Role of Physics Knowledge in Learning IT

The Role of Physics Knowledge in Learning IT – an Educator’s View

Iryna Berezovska

Department of Computer Sciences, Ternopil State Technical University
56 Ruska St., Ternopil 46001, Ukraine

Mykola Berchenko

Semiconductor Electronics Department, Lviv Polytechnic National University
12 Bandera St., Lviv 79013, Ukraine; and
Institute of Physics, Rzeszow University
16a Rejtana St., Rzeszow 35-310, Poland


Abstract. The lack of the fundamental physical knowledge significantly limits students’ ability to comprehend IT courses. According to authors’ survey, widespread problems with physics can be summarized as poor knowledge of basic electric, magnetic and optic phenomena.

The portion of the physical knowledge involved in teaching IT can only increase in the near term, which raises a question concerning how teachers can provide efficient access to the necessary information within IT courses. Along with traditional physics courses, a Web-based instruction model with its deep linking strategy that links students directly to the structured components of online courseware provides a potential roadmap to a solution.

Importance of and access to the gray literature is also addressed.

Keywords. Information technology, physics, hardware, Web-based instruction, gray literature.

1. Introduction

The origin and increasingly growing progress of information technology as a science with many applications was the product of multiple forces operating during decades prior to 1980s, when a wide use of PCs indicated the beginning of the IT era. These included many discoveries and accomplishments in physics, extensive research in material sciences, the innovative impact of the quantum theory, and the confidence produced by the success of transistor technology and semiconductor microelectronics at large. By virtue of this experience, IT became a prime example of quick application of new physical ideas, a circumstance which augured of its success.

2. Evaluation of students’ physical background

The lack of the fundamental physical knowledge significantly limits effective learning IT and IT literacy in particular. Students depend on relevant physics information to be successful in mastering IT skills. To clarify a “physical bottleneck” in students’ educational background we conducted the survey which sought (1) to learn the comprehension level regarding the knowledge of fundamental physics phenomena that students retained after a school physics course and (2) to explore students’ ability to understand how physics phenomena are “transformed” into IT hardware solutions.

Two groups of 1st and 4th year students were recruited for the survey in Ternopil State Technical University.

The 1st year students were asked to answer 5 questions concerning electricity and magnetism:

  1. What is a ferromagnetic?
  2. Coulomb’s Law.
  3. Electromagnetic induction law.
  4. What is a condenser capacity?
  5. What are differences between metals, semiconductors and dielectrics?

Obviously, the questions were selected to reflect the phenomena applied in CPUs (transistors), memory and storage devices.

30 questionnaires were completed. Most students reproduced the formula of Coulomb’s Law (70%), many wrote formulas of the electromagnetic induction law (37%) and the condenser capacity (43%). Only 33% students were able to answer the 1st question. About 60% students provided a simple conductivity-based explanation about the difference between metals, semiconductors and dielectrics. No interpretation was given to the formulas they wrote and no comments were made on possible application of the phenomena mentioned.

The 4th year questionnaire dealt with the topics which are addressed in the current Web-based course titled “IT Hardware” [1] and, similar to the previous questionnaire, focused on the physical basis:

  1. Which physical phenomena are used in data storage devices?
  2. Why optic buses are generally faster than electric ones?
  3. What is a physical law applied in an optic fiber?
  4. Indicate devices the operation of which is based on the phase transformation from an amorphous state to a crystal one and vice versa.
  5. What physical factors can restrict the Moore’s Law?

Questionnaires were completed by 18 students. 92% students easily explained the principles of data storage, but only 42% students were able to reason about optic versus electric buses using their knowledge of electricity, magnetism and optics which was found rather insufficient as shown through an additional survey with the 1st year student questionnaire. Many students (67%) successfully explained how an optic fiber and optic storage devices work. 67% students saw the link between the structure of semiconductor materials used in microelectronics and the current trends in this field described by the Moore’s Law.

For comparison, the 4th year students were additionally offered to complete the 1st year questionnaire initially intended for the 1st year students. In contrast to 1st year students, the 4th year ones provided descriptive answers to questions #2 (62%), #3 (64%), and #4 (67%). Only one student of 92% students who properly answered the question #5 reasoned in terms of charge carriers, while others, similar to 1st year students, mentioned only different conductivity.

The survey results are summarized in Table 1. We may suggest that as soon as we have made a special emphasize on what physical phenomena are used in IT hardware while teaching the “IT Hardware” course, the 4th year students demonstrate overall better vision of this link.

Table 1. Percentage of proper responses

4th year students
Question #
1st year
1st year
4th year

According to our survey, widespread problems with physics can be summarized as poor knowledge of fundamental electric, magnetic and optic phenomena that makes many students feeling a wide gap between physics and IT. This is not a criticism of current educational practice but merely an observation

3. Physics in the IT context

Physics creates a strong foundation for IT literacy. The portion of the physical knowledge involved in teaching IT can only increase in the near term, which raises a question concerning how teachers can provide efficient access to the relevant information within IT courses.

3.1. Reasons to learn physics better

Knowledge of relevant physics information is important to students for a variety of reasons:

  • it makes the link between the theory and the practice meaningful for students;
  • it reinforces comprehension of how IT hardware work;
  • it enables students to understand current trends in IT and see the principal limits of those trends;
  • it provides support for decision making regarding the proper selection and use of IT hardware;
  • it allows to see new ways in future IT.

3.2. The access to physics educational materials within IT courses

Different strategies can be implemented in the science curriculum to address problems of IT literacy by improving instruction in physics and better coordination between subject-specific curricula.

It is the authors’ contention that a great deal can be done throughout the modern educational system. Traditional physics courses provide a good primary basis, but a stronger accent on the potential of many physical phenomena, effects and concepts in IT would be useful.

Few efforts can be made to refresh the physical knowledge in students’ memory. When faced with forgotten facts, students will often bypass their old textbooks and seek rapid access to easier understandable information.

One way is to make this information accessible through inserting special sections in the IT courseware. But we believe that access, not necessarily duplicating materials on particular physical matters, might be the most appropriate recommendation in this case.

Web-based instruction model [1] with its deep linking strategy that links students directly to the structured components of online courseware provides a potential roadmap to a solution. Therefore another way to view the situation at hand is from the perspective of the science teaching profession as a whole. The two examples are given below to illustrate the idea.

Entropy is a cornerstone concept in information theory defined by Shannon in the context of a probabilistic model for a data source. However students are likely have heard this word and have learned the entropy concept while were studying physics and thermodynamics in particular. Indeed, both concepts of entropy, information and thermodynamics, have deep links with each other. Then the sensible approach is to provide a link from IT courseware to a relevant physics resource, for example “Introduction to thermodynamics” developed at the Physics Department, Murcia University [2], and benefit from its opportunities including simulation. This facilitates achieving more pragmatic teaching goals, e.g. explaining what the amount of information is, why one binary element contains a unit of information named a bit, when lossless data compression is possible etc.

There is no doubt that graphics is a students’ favorite. But do they always know which image format is more effective, i.e. yields a smaller file size, and why? Color models will be a good starting point to show how image data can be compressed using different formats. For example, “Make a splash with colour” [3] may nicely complement a technical description of image formats.

Each way mentioned above has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it may take a combination of strategies to address the complexities of IT literacy effectively.

4. Potential of the gray literature

Much useful information in science education is generated through academic and nonprofit organizations in the form of project reports or deliverables, conference proceedings, newsletters, lecture notes, assignments, topic presentations, and other formats. These materials typically do not find their way into established commercial outlets for publication and, as a consequence, are not consistently indexed in EBSCO and other bibliographic tools or databases for locating science teaching information. As a result, educational documents often fall into the category of “fugitive” or gray literature, i.e. literature that is difficult to locate because it is not available through traditional commercial pathways.

Gray literature is important to science teachers because:

  • it enables them to learn from and build on the activities of other professionals working in the field;
  • it provides them examples of successful practices.

The proliferation of such non-indexed, potentially valuable information has stirred interest among those involved in the development of, use of, collection of and access to this body of science educational literature [4].

Improving access to this literature faces a number of considerable problems. The sheer volume, diversity, and nontraditional formats make gray literature difficult to locate. Although gray literature documents have become increasingly available on the Internet, collocation, cross-linking of materials across sites is small.

Additionally, the two established models for systematic access to literature are limited solutions to the access problem for the gray literature in science education. The model of controlled vocabulary indexing by human experts has difficulty scaling up to accommodate the quantity and variety of gray literature documents. Although search engine technology is effective in locating some relevant documents, it is restricted in its coverage by problems of collocation across keyword texts and the absence or choice of descriptive information about the documents such as title, creators and topic. Thus, a teacher who is looking for information about a particular science topic faces a formidable challenge in finding pertinent gray literature in the education domain.

Recently experts in science education have made significant efforts to ensure a more systematic way of organizing the gray literature of science education [5-6]. A notable collection of educational resources has been developed within the Hands-on Science project [5], but it represents a small portion of potentially useful gray literature. Thus further research should be made to improve the collections which exist and develop a relevant approach to the access problem in science education gray literature.

5. Conclusions

Current teaching models for science subjects have reached a high state of collaboration. In this regard, establishing the content of and providing the access to cross-subject courseware components should be a profession-wide undertaking. However, such an undertaking would necessarily require profession-wide discussion on the scale of current practices in science teaching.

Finally, in such a fluid environment as the science and the Internet, successful support for teaching requires flexibility and creativity that may be an iterative process. New technologies may enhance courseware but also introduce problems because much in education remains more of an art than a science. Better technologies will certainly help us, but very often we will continue to rely on the expert opinion of our professional colleagues who know the science and, most important of all, know the needs of students we teach.

6. References

[1] Berezovska I, Berchenko N. Web-based Instruction in IT Hardware. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Hands-on Science, HSci 2005, Michaelidis (ed.). Rethimno-Crete, 2005, P. 83-86. ISBN 960 88712 1 2

[2] Introduction to thermodynamics. Physics Department, Murcia University, Spain. 1996 [5/06/2005]

[3] Make a splash with colour. [5/06/2006]

[4] Berchenko N, Berezovska I. When less is more: a practical approach to selecting  Internet-based resources for teaching IT hardware. “System-based Vision for Strategy and Creative Design”, Bontempi (ed.). Swets & Zeitlinger, Lisse, 2003. P. 2119-2122. ISBN 90 5809 599 1

[5] Hand-on Science (H-Sci). 110157-CP-1-2003-1-PT-COMENIUS-C3. [5/06/2006]

[6] CoLoS, Conceptual Learning of Science. [5/06/2006]