Chat GPT for Physics Homework?

The generative AI tools are here to stay. We can rail against them or embrace them, but we cannot avoid them. So, I decided to check them out. If I knew what they offered and what they could do, I could better incorporate them into my Intro Physics classes.

To my students’ amazement, one fine morning, I opened the Chat GPT window in class and typed in the first homework problem for everyone to see. After a page or so of ramblings, the solutions emerged on the screen with the correct answer. And so we repeated with homework problems two, three, and four. On the fifth, just before the final answer, Chat GPT stumbled. After having gone through matching the given information to the proper mathematical symbols and physics concepts correctly and performing the necessary calculus and algebraic manipulations, it declared that “therefore 10 / 2 = 10 and therefore that was the final answer!?!

So, the first lesson is that Chat GPT has no idea how to solve problems. It might mimic to perfection others who know, but that is a poor substitution for actual skill and analytic ability. For that matter, a parrot can mimic a mathematician’s speech but claim that it now knows its mathematics, and people will look at you strangely! Content and form are two completely separate beasts! In his book, “Surely You Are Joking Mr. Feynman!”, the brilliant, quirky, and highly entertaining XX-century physicist Richard Feynman calls people who confuse content and form Cargo Cult Scientists. #Don’tBeCargoCultScientist!

The second lesson came quite unexpectedly. My best student in the class raised his hand and requested that, after Chat GPT, I show how to do the homework my way. He said that ChatGPT babbled, was too verbose, had no rhyme and rhythm; it taught him nothing. What was the pattern here? What about the physical laws behind the solutions? He could gain no knowledge, insights, or skill from this random rambling. To counter this, another student argued that he had been using it extensively and with great success. Given that the same student also failed the class tests before the end of the semester had even arrived, that leaves me somewhat doubting the veracity of his original claims.

So, if you are a student in the sciences, beware! In enrolling in a class, you paid for access to a human, not merely to content. The content is after all freely available on the Internet. You could get it easily from ChatGPT or on Khan Academy for free. Take advantage of having access to a human being and insist your instructor give you explanations in class. If they cannot beat ChatGPT or Khan Academy, drop the class and get your money back. But, if they do better (and they should!), make the most of it. Access to a creative and intelligent human being is fast becoming the most valuable commodity these days. #AnalyticAbilityBeatsContent!

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