Arthur Stinner

Physics Education & Astronomy

When I heard the learn'd astronomer:
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer,
where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman)

The main objective going beyond the textbook is to offer physics teachers examples of an interesting and realistic context with a central "big idea" that attracts students' interest and excites their imagination. These contexts that I have previously called large context problems generate questions and problems that are generally not found in textbooks, have often no obvious solutions, but can be answered using elementary physics and mathematics. Examples of such contexts are "Physics on the Moon", "A Solar House for Northern Latitudes", the "The Six Million Dollar Man", "The Physics of Star trek" and "Physics and the Dambusters" (See publication).

The challenge for physics teachers is to recognize a current "big idea" that attracts the interest of students and then develop a rich context with a good story line. Most science (physics) teachers do intermittently use current events in discussing "real" science. Unfortunately, these discussions are often only cursory and are seen by students as token gestures in an attempt to infuse relevance. This failure to successfully incorporate into the teaching of science relevant and interesting contexts is due to the stringent and exclusive demands made by the curriculum-based and textbook-driven requirements of conventional science teaching.

Astronomy is the oldest science, indeed the Greek's modelling of the solar system constitute the first example of a successful scientific theory. Copernicus' model of the sun-centered solar system, followed by Kepler's three laws of motion, set the stage for Newton's great synthesis of the celestial and terrestrial realms of the study of dynamics. Yet, astronomy is not taught in school. We neglect astronomy at our peril.

I have written several articles that deal with the physics of positional astronomy on an elementary level. The content of these could be presented in physics classes by competent teachers. Especially the last one: "Journey to Mars ..." could be used in the classroom, since it is topical, uses a computer model, and is interactive.


Stinner, A. (1973). Voyage to Darkness (The West African Eclipse) I, The Crucible, 5 (1) 7-15.

Stinner, A. (2000). Hitchhiking On An Asteroid: A Large Context Problem. Physics in Canada, Jan/Feb., pp. 27-42.

Metz, D. & Stinner, A. (2002). Deep Impact: The Physics of Asteroid Collisions. The Physics Teacher . Vol. 40, November 2002, 487-492.
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Stinner, A. and Begoray, J. (2005). Journey to Mars: the physics of travelling to the red planet. Physics Education, 40 (1). 1-11.
An Interactive Computer program can be used by clicking here.
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