What is physics problem solving competency? The views of Arnold Sommerfeld and Enrico Fermi

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A central goal of physics education is to teach problem-solving competency, but the nature of this competency is not well-described in the literature. The present paperarticle uses recent historical scholarship on Arnold Sommerfeld and Enrico Fermi to identify and characterize two positions on the nature of physics problem- solving competency. The first, Sommerfeld’s, is a “theory first, phenomenon second” approach. Here the relevant problems originate in one of the theories of physics and the job goal of the problem- solver is to make a mathematical analysis of the suitable equation(s) and then give a qualitative analysis of the phenomenon that arise from these mathematical results. Fermi’s position is a “phenomenon first, theory second” approach, where the starting point is a physical phenomenon that is analyzed and then brought into the realm of a physics theory. The two positions are illustrated with solutions to two problems and it is shown that the two positions are reflected in problem collections of university educations in physics.
TidsskriftScience & Education
Udgave nummer3/4
Sider (fra-til)357-369
Antal sider13
StatusUdgivet - 2018


  • History of Physics
  • Problem Solving Competency
  • Physics education
  • Philosophy of physics

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