Smith, Thompson, Mountcastle on Taylor Series Expansions in Statistical Mechanics

T.I. Smith, J.R. Thompson and D.B. Mountcastle
Student Understanding of Taylor Series Expansions in Statistical Mechanics
Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research 9, 020110 (2013). http://link.aps.org/doi/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.9.020110

One goal of physics instruction is to have students learn to make physical meaning of specific mathematical expressions, concepts, and procedures in different physical settings. As part of research investigating student learning in statistical physics, we are developing curriculum materials that guide students through a derivation of the Boltzmann factor using a Taylor series expansion of entropy. Using results from written surveys, classroom observations, and both individual think-aloud and teaching interviews, we present evidence that many students can recognize and interpret series expansions, but they often lack fluency in creating and using a Taylor series appropriately, despite previous exposures in both calculus and physics courses.