Quantum physics explained in high school

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University of Pavia P06

Designing and testing approaches and materials to introduce basic concepts of quantum physics in the standard Italian high school curriculum is the aim of a research project carried out by the Physics Education Research (PER) Group at the Physics Department of the University of Pavia (Italy). The Project involves pre-service and in-service Math and Physics teachers and their students.

The implementation of the new physics curriculm in Italian High School requires that, starting from 2014-15, modern Physics, and in particular Quantum Physics, be taught in the last year of the high school (students’ age 18-19 years). For that reason a considerable effort has been done inside the Italian National Project ‘Piano Lauree Scientifiche’ (PLS) to respond to schools’ requests of support both for helping teachers in deepening the content matter and for designing new approaches, adequate to students’ age and preparation.

Moving from an established research line on the educational use of Feynman’s sum over paths method popularized in his famous book QED, the Strange Theory of  Light and Matter, the PER Group at the Physics Department of the University of Pavia-Italy worked, inside the PLS, with in service and pre-service teachers with the aim of favouring a gradual and effective approach to quantum physics, starting from Feynman’s picture of the photon.


©Univeristà di Pavia


Classical experiments on the wave phenomenology of light, such as interference and diffraction, are reconsidered by using commonly available materials: measurements employ a video camera and the Tracker software. Then experimental evidence making both the purely wavelike and classical corpuscular interpretations of light untenable is discussed. Some of the experiments we consider are: “granular” interaction of light with matter (photoelectric and Compton effects); indivisibility of the photon; single photon interference. Stressing in particular the importance of the last point, we introduce the Feynman conception of the photon and the probabilistic interpretation of the sum over paths method.

"In classical physics I can know the trajectory of a ball which moves in the air with a certain velocity, but quantum objects can take more than one path simultaneously, freely. This fundamental freedom does not disturb me. (...) Experiment is very important, because in classical physics I can understand everything through mental images, for example the parabolic trajectory of balls thrown in the air... but how can I imagine the distribution of photons on the screen in a two slits experiments, if I don't see it?", commented a student.

Modern experiments, such as the Zhou-Wang-Mandel one, are discussed to better characterize the peculiarity of quantum object behaviour, in particular the measurement problem. Finally the sum over paths method for massive particles and quantization are introduced. The sequence has been proposed and discussed in 2014 both with pre-service and in-service teachers in the perspective of implementing it in schools. In 2015 a pilot testing with high school students in the last year of high school has been carried out with encouraging results.


For more information please contact:

Anna De Ambrosis: anna.deambrosisvigna@unipv.it