Intro Astronomy Update

I picked up this introductory astronomy course just a week before classes started. One of my other classes didn’t have enough students in it, so I got this instead. It’s a gen-ed science course for non-science majors. Since it was added late, there are only 12 students in the class.

I’ll be honest—there are some super awesome topics in this intro astronomy course. The historical stories and the “how do we know” stuff is great. HOWEVER, it’s also a really tough class.

I didn’t have time to build something from scratch, so I just went with the order and presentation of topics according to the textbook. This class uses Explorations – an Introduction to Astronomy, 9th ed (Arny, Schneider) McGraw Hill. It’s an OK, text with only a few areas that I don’t agree with. But let’s look at the first 4 chapters:

  • Chapter 1: The sky. Celestial sphere, motions of the sky, seasons, phases of the moon.
  • Chapter 2: Historical astronomy stuff. Mostly, this is the geocentric vs. heliocentric model of the solar system.
  • Chapter 3: Gravity and Motion. BAM. Forces and motion, gravity, escape velocity.
  • Chapter 4: Light and atoms. DOUBLE BAM.

Chapter 3 is bad. I mean, I have other classes that spend about 1/3rd of the semester on forces and motion and they don’t even get to the 1 over r squared version of gravity at any point. I think it’s possible to get students to understand most of the ideas in chapter 3, but not in a chapter-length amount of class time.

Oh sure. You could just tell the students everything they need to know about forces and motion. You could TELL them that a constant force makes an object have a constant acceleration. But research shows that this doesn’t really work. No, this is a tough concept and it’s going to take time to get it figured out.

Chapter 4 is even worse. The interaction between light and matter could be its own separate course. It’s not just a chapter. Oh, on top of that – there are these instructor power point slides. Here are three in a row that go something like this.

  • Light is an electromagnetic wave.
  • Light is also a particle.
  • Which way light manifests itself depends on the situation.

That’s bad. Of course you know I don’t like the whole “light is a particle” thing.

OK, but there are some good things about this course. I have a small enough class that I can put in some extra stuff. We did some of the NextGEN PET units in class, and that went over fairly well. I have also been doing some of the great online labs from University of Nebraska-Lincoln (https://astro.unl.edu/naap/). Those are nice.

One other quick note. I think I am going to skip over all the planet stuff. It seems like it would just turn into a “memorize the density of Saturn” stuff. I really want to get to stars. There are some great stories about how we know stuff about stars.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress of the course.

Jump Start Guide for Computational Physics

It’s the beginning of a new school year—and I’ve got you covered. You want to do something with coding in your physics class, but you don’t know where to start? I’m going to give you a jump start.

I know you are nervous, but don’t worry. You don’t need to be a ‘l33t h4x0rz’ (that’s cool-speak for elite hacker). You just need to get started. Just remember, everyone had to start programing at some point. They all did it—so can you.

What the heck do you call it?

I like to call this stuff “numerical calculations”. I think this is the best name for it because it sort of describes what’s going on. Here’s the general idea:

  • Take a physics problem (or any problem, really).
  • Break the problem into a bunch of small and easier problems.
  • Maybe make some approximations.
  • Solve all the small problems by using numbers.

Numbers are the key. You have to use numbers in a numerical calculation. The other solution is an analytical calculation. This is the process of solving a problem in terms of known functions—like the trig functions. For an analytic solution, you don’t really have to put in the numbers until the end.

Of course, there isn’t a huge difference in these two solutions (analytical vs. numerical). A great example from Bruce Sherwood (in a discussion at the recent AAPT meeting in Utah) points out the following:

Suppose you get a solution for a mass oscillating on a spring. The analytical solution will be in terms of the cosine function. But then, how do you get values for something like cos(0.33) = ? Well, you put it in your calculator or you look it up in a table. Oh, you could find the value for cosine by summing an infinite series. But you see—we are back to a numerical calculation.

That’s not exactly what Bruce said, but that’s the basic idea.

Here are some other names for numerical calculations that you might see:

  • Computational physics
  • Coding in physics
  • I’m drawing a blank here—there must be some other words.

But I also like numerical calculations because it doesn’t explicitly say “computer” in it.

Why do numerical calculations in physics?

Solving for the motion of a mass on a spring

Let me be brief and just list some points.

  • Numerical calculations are just part of physics. There are countless physics problems that can only be solved numerically.
  • Once students get the idea of numerical calculations, they can solve more interesting problems that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
  • What about other fields? Meteorology, digital animations, protein folding, economics…the list goes on.
  • Tools. The tools for numerical calculations are both free and easy to access. You don’t need to install anything and you could even do it on a smart phone (not recommend—but possible).
  • Finally, numerical calculations helps student understand physics. I’ve always been surprised that when working on a problem with students on a computer, they ask questions. But these questions are rarely about computer syntax. They are usually things about vectors or forces. It’s awesome.

Who is this for?

I’m going to get you started—so this tutorial is geared towards very introductory classes. I use this same stuff in a physics lab for an algebra-based physics course at that college level. I think this would be fine for high school classes also.

If you want more advanced stuff—this might also work as an introduction. For my calculus-based physics course, I start with more complicated stuff.

Also, I am careful to emphasize that students (and faculty) don’t need any prior experience with coding.

Where to start

I like to have a workshop format for my lab or class. I use a projector at the front of the room to go over some points and then stop and let the students work on code either individually or in groups (here is a version of my presentation—feel free to use it). I tell students to bring a computer or tablet if possible. Otherwise they will be in groups of 4 per computer (which is not ideal). Of course some students don’t want to get involved, so a 4 person group is what they want.

Here is the general outline of the workshop format lesson.

  • Give an overview of numerical calculations (motivation).
  • Start with an object moving at a constant velocity in one dimension. Let them solve it analytically (hopefully, this is a review).
  • Next have them take this SAME PROBLEM but solve it by breaking into 7 time steps—but still solving it on paper. NO COMPUTERS YET.
  • I actually give them a table to fill out. It has 7 rows with columns for time, time step, and position. After a short time, I stop them and go over the calculation for the first row (and maybe the second). Some students can finish this table very quickly, and others not so quick.

Next, they do this same set of calculations with some python code. I give them this program that runs as it is and I go over each line.

The two parts that might be new for students:

After going over the code, I send them to this page (https://trinket.io/rhettallain_gmail_com/courses/physics-python-for-mere-mortals#/beginning-numerical-calculations/using-small-pieces). It’s a trinket.io page with the code right in the browser. They don’t even need to log in or anything. It even has all the instructions there too so that they could do this on their own. The trinket site is the BEST. Oh, I also made this shortened-url (http://bit.ly/trinket-physics). That page includes everything. I make sure to tell them to click on the “using small pieces” tab on the left to get to the code.

So, the students run the code and then modify the code to answer some questions such as:

  • Where will the car be at a different time? Say 2.2 seconds.
  • What if you change the velocity the 0.62 m/s, where will it be after 2.2 seconds?
  • What if the car starts at -0.5 meters?

Stuff like that. Really, I just want them to be able to run the code, read the output, and change the code. It’s sort of a coding ice-breaker.

I’m not going to go over the rest of the workshop—but it’s all there (and more) on the trinket.io site along with the instructor slides. After that first small activity, the students do the following:

  • A similar problem but with a constant (non-zero) acceleration. This is great because you get a different final answer for the numerical calculation that depends on the size of the time step.
  • How to make graphs (or at least print out values) so you can get more data.
  • Solving a problem with two cars—one moving at a constant velocity and one accelerating. This is the classic “police chase” problem. I set up the program (not all the way) but I let them figure out how to change the while loop to get it to run. It’s great because students come up with their own ways of making it work. Sometimes, this is where I stop the class.
  • Projectile motion.
  • Mass oscillating on a spring.

What do you need?

If you want to do this in class, you need some computers or tablets and some time. You could probably do this in sections, just break it into 30 minute activities if you like.

Some other things to consider:

  • Make sure you work through the material first. It’s important to really know what’s going on so that you can easily help students when they get stuck.
  • If a group has a program that’s not running right, I really try to get them unstuck. If it’s a silly syntax error, I try to find that right away so they don’t get frustrated.
  • If you have any questions or need help. let me know.

What’s Wrong With Algebra-Based E&M?

It’s summer time. For me, that means I’m getting ready for summer classes. Yay! Well, at least I get paid—so that’s good, right? This year, I am teaching the physics for elementary education majors and the second semester of algebra-based physics (electricity and magnetism).

Just to be clear, there are usually two types of introductory physics at the college level. First, there is the calculus-based physics sequence. This course is for physics majors, chemistry majors, math majors…stuff like that. Of course it assumes that the students can use calculus.

The other version is the algebra-based. It does NOT use calculus. The students that take this (at least at my institution) are mostly biology, engineering technology. If you want to consider the course goals, you really need to know who is taking the course.

In order to see the problem with the algebra-based course, let me describe the second semester of the calculus-based course. For this course, I use Matter and Interactions (Chabay and Sherwood, Wiley). It’s a great textbook—here is my review of this textbook from 2014. Here is a short summary of the approach (for the second semester).

  • What is the electric field?
  • What is the magnetic field?
  • How does matter interact with the electric and magnetic fields?
  • What is the connection between electric and magnetic fields—Maxwell’s Equations.

For me, it’s all about building up to Maxwell’s Equations. Just to be clear, here are Maxwell’s Equations.

\oint \vec{E} \cdot \hat{n} dA = \frac{1}{\epsilon_0} \sum q_\text{in}

\oint \vec{B} \cdot \hat{n} dA = 0

\oint \vec{B} \cdot \vec{dl} = \mu_0 \left[ \sum I_\text{in} + \epsilon_0 \frac{d}{dt} \int \vec{E} \cdot \hat{n} dA \right]

\oint \vec{E} \cdot \vec{dl} =- \frac{d}{dt} \int \vec{B} \cdot \hat{n} dA

Of course there are many different ways to write these equations, however—one thing should be clear. You can’t really grok Maxwell’s Equations without calculus. You need to understand both derivatives, line integrals, and surface integrals.

Now for the algebra-based course. If you don’t have calculus, you can’t really get to Maxwell’s equations. Oh sure, you could do things like Gauss’s Law and Ampere’s law, but it would just be a “how do you use this equation”. Although it’s still true that Maxwell’s equations are sort of magical, without calculus they are just a game.

It’s sort of like teaching long division to 5th graders. Sure, they can learn the process of finding a division value but using the steps—but why? Why use long division when you could just use a calculator? However, if you use long division to understand the number system and division, that’s cool. But it seems that most classes just teach the “how to long divide” without going into the details.

This is exactly where most algebra-based physics textbooks end up. It becomes a giant equation salad. A bunch of equations that have no derivation. Yes, students can be “trained” to use these equations, but I really don’t see the point of that.

I should point out that there isn’t a problem in the first semester of algebra-based physics. A student can use the momentum principle or the work-energy principle without calculus. It’s not a big problem.

OK, so what am I going to do? Honestly, I don’t know. Here are some final thoughts.

  • What is the ultimate goal of this course? Why do biology and engineering technology majors take this course? The course goal will shape the course material.
  • I have two options for textbooks this semester. They both suck. OK, they don’t actually suck—but they are just a bunch of equations.
  • It would be nice to just focus on observable stuff and modeling. Do something like measure current and voltage and produce a linear function relating the two. Oh, how about repeating historical experiments to see where all this stuff comes from?

I’ll keep you updated.

Evolution of a Physics Lab

When I think about the physics labs I teach, I realize things have changed over the past 18 years. The way that I run introductory labs is different than when I first started. Here is a review of my lab philosophy over the years.

I’m going to leave off the labs I taught as a graduate student since I wasn’t really in charge of the lab design.

Phase 1: Mostly Traditional – But With Computers

Really, when you first start off with a tenure track position you have to go with the flow. You can’t jump in and start doing crazy stuff. There are too many other things to focus on (grants, papers, projects…). So, for me—I just took the departmental physics lab manual and started with that. It was pretty traditional.

But I quickly set out on my own. I stopped using the lab manual and made my own labs. Oh, they were still pretty traditional in the format of:

  • Here is some physics theory.
  • Here are detailed instructions on how to collect data.
  • Here are detailed instructions on how to analyze the data.

However, my labs had data acquisition stuff to make it cooler. I found some money to put new (at the time new) iMacs in the room and used Vernier Logger Pro with sensors and stuff. Wait, I actually have a picture of this room from 2003.

Check that out. Those are some classic iMacs. Those suckers were in use for at least 10 years.

There was another important aspect of this “phase 1 lab”. I wanted to have the students work on the following:

  • Physics concepts
  • Data analysis
  • Error analysis (uncertainty)
  • Technical writing and communication
  • Experimental design.

Note: you can not do this many things. It’s either a 2 or 3 hour lab. At most you could focus on two of these things.

In terms of writing, I think I was making excellent progress on this front. I was working on an idea about peer evaluation of writing. The basic idea is that students evaluate other students writings as a way of helping everyone write better. I still think this is a good idea, but I moved on (because of many issues and other things to work on).

Phase 2: Make Pre Lab Great Again

If you have taught labs, you know that students aren’t always properly prepared. Most faculty know this. They might spend the first 30 minutes of lab time with a lecture to cover the important points. But this still doesn’t work. It’s hard for the students to pay attention and to fully grok the lab. They end up just asking questions about stuff you just told them.

OK—I can fix this. I will just make super awesome lab materials and post it online. Note only that, I will include videos and everything. Students will look at this and then we can just rock and roll during lab.

Nope. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how great the video teaches the concept if students never watch it. In fact, I would find many students watching the video IN LAB. This drives me crazy—mostly because I hate hearing my own voice.

I tried online pre-lab quizzes. That didn’t work. They would just do the bare minimum to get the stuff done before class. It was just a pain in the rear.

Oh, what about pre-lab quizzes in class? Again, those are more trouble than they are worth.

Phase 3: Play and Compete

This one works fairly well. Forget about the pre lab stuff. Drop the lecture at the beginning of lab too. Give the students stuff to play with and see if they can come up with their own questions.

Here is an example in the realm of 1-D collisions.

  • Show students the tracks, carts, and different bumper options.
  • Tell them “keep the track level”, but otherwise just play with it.
  • Students love the magnetic bumpers. Many of them will try collisions between different mass carts.
  • After they have played, suggest they try to calculate the kinetic energy and the momentum of the carts.
  • Let them come up with their own methods for calculating velocities (I give some options).

That works fairly well. Some students don’t do too much, but for the students that find cool stuff it works great.

Here is another example with a competition. Again, no pre-lab.

  • Show students an inertial balance (oscillates back and forth).
  • Let them play with it.
  • Now for the challenge. Can you use this to find the mass of 4 unknown masses? The quiz at the end of the lab is just finding the mass. Your score is based on your accuracy.

This works fairly well—but not every lab can be in the form of a contest. However, students love to compete and it’s fun.

Phase 4: Free-for-all

This is where I am at now. I don’t expect students to prepare for lab because I will just be disappointed. The labs are a combination of all types of lab. Sometimes they are just verifying an equation. Sometimes they get to build stuff. I don’t expect the lab to match up with the lecture course (because apparently that doesn’t matter).

Sometimes labs still suck, but sometimes they are awesome. I will keep changing my labs until everything is perfect.

Oh, here is a more recent picture of the lab.

Analysis of a borked lab

It happens all the time. It even happens to you. There is a new lab you want to try out—or maybe you are just modifying a previous physics lab. You are trying to make things better. But when the class meets—things fall apart (sometimes literally).

Yes. This is what happened to me this week. And yes—it’s OK.

But let’s look at the lab and go over the problems so that I can make it even better for the future.

Finding the electric field due to a point charge

This is a lab for the algebra-based physics course. It’s always tough because many of the first things they cover in the lecture class don’t have lab activities with things you can measure. Oh sure—there is that electrically charged clear tape lab, but it will be a while before they get to circuits.

So, my idea was to have the students use python to calculate the electric field due to a point charge. This would give them a safe and friendly introduction to python so that we could use it later to get the electric field due to other things (line a dipole or a line charge). It would be great.

Here is the basic structure of the lab (based on this trinket.io stuff that I wrote – https://rhettallain_gmail_com.trinket.io/intro-to-electric-and-magnetic-fields#/introduction/vector-review

You can look at that stuff, but basically I give a workshop style presentation and have the students do the following:

  • Review vectors. Add two vectors on paper (not with python).
  • Find the displacement vector – given the vector for a point, find the vector from that point to another point (the vector r).
  • Find the unit vector and the magnitude of a vector (using python).
  • Next, find the electric field due to a point charge for the simple case with a charge at the origin and the observation point on the x-axis. Do this on paper.
  • Now do the same calculation with python.
  • Find the electric field at some location due to a charge not at the origin (in python).
  • Use python (or whatever) to make a graph of the electric field as a function of distance for a point charge. Graph paper is fine. If they wanted to, they could do the calculations by hand (or use python).
  • Finally, give a quick overview of the sphere() and arrow() object in glowscript.

So, that was the plan.

Lab problems

Here are the problems students had during this lab.

  • Computer problems. Yes—whenever using computers, someone is going to have a problem. In this case, it was partly my fault. There was one computer that was broken and some other ones weren’t updated. Honestly, the best option is for students to bring their own.
  • I can see that there are some students that just sort of “shut down” when they see computer code. They automatically assume it’s too complicated to grok.
  • Students working in big groups. I hate having 4 students use one computer. That’s just lame.
  • Too much lecture. The first time I did this, I spent too much time going over vectors with not enough breaks for students to practice. I partially fixed this for the second section of lab.
  • Some students were just lost on vectors.
  • Yes, the unit vector is a tough concept.
  • I’ve learned this before—but I guess I need to relearn. The visualization (sphere and arrow) are just too much for many students. That’s why I moved it to the end in my second section.

So, that’s it. I am going to rewrite the lab stuff on trinket.io. I am also going to change my material for the dipole stuff that they are doing next week. Hopefully it goes well. Let’s just see.

Should We Even Be Offering Online Classes?

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It’s probably clear—I’m not a fan of online classes. Honestly, I very surprised out how much emphasis universities put on creating MORE online classes.

However, I’m ready for you to change my mind.  Let me offer my thoughts and then you can leave a comment or reply on twitter. Seriously—change my mind.

Learning is about doing

Let me start with my fundamental idea about the nature of learning.  You can’t learn if you don’t do.  OK, I will stop you right there.  Here is what you are going to say (or at least one person will say this):

I don’t buy this learn by doing stuff.  I spent a bunch of years learning physics and we just had a textbook along with traditional lecture. It looks like I turned out just fine.

Yes, you turned out fine—but what about everyone else?  Anyway, I still think you learn by doing.  Some humans are pretty good at watching a lecture or reading a textbook and then engaging in the material in some way—maybe just inside of their heads.  I don’t know.

But here is real truth.  No one learns real stuff (like physics) by just watching a lecture or a video or a presentation.  There is no short cut to real learning.  It takes effort and struggle.  It is through this struggle (in our minds) that we change and learn.

What are these “learn by doing” things that could happen in a course?  Here are just a few examples. I’m using an example of a physics class.

  • Work physics problems—as homework, or tests, or group work or whatever.
  • Interactive questions.  This could be clicker questions in class or conceptual physics questions such as physics tutorials or something.
  • Ranking tasks.  Students get several options for a question and they have to rank them.  Many more ideas at PhysPort.
  • Card sort or speed dating problems (pretty much anything you see on Kelly O’Shea’s site).
  • Find the error in someone’s physics solution—I think this is also from Kelly.

OK, you get the idea.

Can you “do stuff” online?

Yes. I believe that it is technically possible to have an online course that engages students.  It has to be possible, but I’m not sure exactly how this would work.

Maybe I’m old, but for me it’s like having a video conference?  Have you ever been in a video conference?  Surely you have.  What happens when there are perhaps 4 or 5 people in the conference and there is that ever so slight delay in communication?  I don’t know about you, but for me it ruins everything.  I can’t stand it.  It seems like it would be the same as talking face to face, but it isn’t.

This is how I feel about online learning—it seems like you could do all the things I listed above but do them online.  It just doesn’t seem to work as well.

Oh, and if your online class just takes the powerpoint lectures you use and puts them online—that just seems silly.  Honestly, why are we still using powerpoint stuff that just covers the same material as the book?

Is the future of learning online?  

Maybe.  Who knows.  Maybe I’m just resisting change that will happen anyway.  I’ll say this—if the goal of learning is just to transmit information, then what the heck are we doing in class?  Wikipedia already does this better than I can.

Two links:

Why are we trying to compete nationally? 

Let’s just focus on local.  We can win at local.  If we (the university) want to compete online, aren’t we competing for students that could use MIT’s online programs or some other online university that does a better (or cheaper) job than us?

I’m not against videos.

In case it’s not clear, I have been putting educational videos online for a long time.  A long time.  Here is one from 2009.

My feeling is that if there is a short lecture or demo I could do in class, I might as well put it online.  That way students can watch it and rewatch it (and other people can use it too).  These videos then allow me to do more active-learning things in class rather than going over the solution to some physics problem.

But I don’t think you can just put a bunch of videos online and say “boom – online course”.  If you think that, what about just posting the textbook online and calling it a course?  It’s essentially the same thing.

What do students think?

Sometimes I talk to students. I ask them what they think about the online courses that they take.  Here are some things they say:

  • I like the online courses—especially for intro courses.  That way I can get it over with and do the work from home.
  • I hate online courses.  I get super confused and it’s really hard to learn.

I could be wrong, but it seems as though they like online courses for simple stuff but not for complicated courses.  Courses that are just a bunch of facts work great as online courses but not something like physics.

Perhaps we have too many courses that are just a collection of facts.  Yes, some of these courses are necessary—but it should just be a few.

Focus on community of learners.

Let me share my chocolate chip cookie model for higher education.

College is like a chocolate chip cookie.  The courses a student takes are like the chocolate chips and all the other stuff they do between classes is like the cookie dough.  What if you put all the courses online?  Then you just have a bunch of chocolate chips.  You might like that, but it’s pretty hard to call it a cookie.  Personally, I prefer the whole cookie.

The most important part of college aren’t the classes—it’s all the other stuff.  The goal of higher education is to build a community of learners (where the faculty are also learning stuff).

The end.  Change my mind.

It’s Just One Semester at a Time

This is really for students—but maybe it applies to you also.  If so, I’m happy about that.

So there you are.  There’s still a month left in the semester (or quarter) and you are just plain burned out.  You have not motivation to study and your last test score wasn’t quite what you expected.  That thought creeps into your head—maybe you just don’t belong here.

NO. Don’t listen to that voice!

Yes, we all have that voice.  It’s in us all.  It’s the voice of doubt.  You can get through this—surely you can.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider something else.  Suppose you are in a race.  It’s a long race—maybe it’s a 10k.  You haven’t run this far before and you are worried about finishing last so you start off with a quick pace.

Oh, now it’s up to the 8 kilometer mark and you have lost it.  You have to stop.  You can’t keep up this pace anymore.

Has this happened to you in a race?  It has to me (and I hate races).  Of course the problem in this situation is the pace.  You can’t start off too fast or you will run out of energy.  You have to start off with a reasonable pace that you can keep up with the whole time.  It is indeed odd that starting off slower gives you a faster overall speed—but it’s true.

Back to studying.  You can see where this is going.  If you start off at a whirlwind pace at the beginning of the semester, you are going to run out of steam.

Here are some tips for taking care of business during the semester.

  • You don’t have to be perfect in all (or any) of your classes.  That’s like assuming you are going to win in every race.  No one wins all the time—and this isn’t even a race.  It’s not a competition.
  • Take some breaks.  I’m not saying you should just sit around and chill, but if you work all the time your brain can’t process stuff.  Do something fun.  Go see something.  Hang out with friends.  These are the parts of college life that will have a huge impact.
  • Work with others in a study group.  This means you will help others and this means others will help you.  Both of these things are super useful.
  • Exercise.  Go for a walk or hit the gym.  Personally, I like to run—and I don’t use earphones.  Just use that exercise time to sort of meditate and let your brain unwind.
  • Need help?  Get help.  There are plenty of people to help you.  Go talk to your professor (they are most likely nice). Talk to your friends and family.  If you feel like things are getting out of hand, there are probably support services at your university.

Finally, maybe you like dogs.  Go find a dog and pet a dog.

Physics and Education Majors

There is this course.  It’s called Physics for Elementary Education Majors (PHYS 142) – maybe that’s not surprising.  Anyway, I really like this course – it’s awesome.  Let me tell you a little about the history and future of this course.

According my email archive, I think this course was created in 2003.  Ok, technically it was created before that but 2003 is when we started offering the course again.  Actually, the fact that the course already existed made it much easier to get it going.  If you have ever been part of a university curriculum committee, you know what I mean.

We created the course for the College of Education.  They needed a science course for their elementary education majors that satisfied some particular component of NCATE (the accrediting agency for Colleges of Education).  I honestly don’t know (or can’t remember) what specific thing the course was supposed to do – but there it was.  This course was perfect for them.

The first semester I taught this course, I used the Physics by Inquiry (McDermott) curriculum.  This curriculum was especially designed for education majors – and it’s quite awesome.  However, there was one problem – maths.  There isn’t a ton of math in PBI but there is enough to make students panic.  I think they should indeed work through their issues with math, but it was causing problems with the course. Note: I tell students that they shouldn’t say “I’m not a math person”.

After math troubles, I decided to switch to a new curriculum.  At the time it was called Physics for Elementary Teachers (PET) but was later changed to Physics and Everyday Thinking (also PET – by Goldberg, Otero, Robinson).  Here are some of the awesome features of PET.

  • Student learning based on evidence collected (not authority learning from the textbook or instructor).
  • Explicitly includes ideas about the nature of learning.
  • Emphasis on model building and the nature of science.
  • Includes children’s ideas about physics.
  • Math isn’t a barrier.
  • OH, the best part.  The new version of the curriculum is called Next Gen PET.  This version explicitly aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards.  This should be a huge win for the College of Education.

Honestly, it’s great stuff.  Oh, there are still problems.  Students get caught up in the whole “why don’t you just tell us the answer?” thing – but I can work around that.

But like I said – this is the course that we have been teaching for 15 years (wow – even writing that is incredible).  This course was designed for the College of Education.  We typically have been teaching three sections of the course each semester with an average of about 25 students per section.

PHYS 142 Today

I accidentally discovered something recently.  The education majors informed me that PHYS 142 is no longer required in the curriculum.  What? How can that be?  Yup, it’s true.  The new science requirements for elementary education majors have the following three courses:

  • Biology 1
  • Biology 2
  • Earth Science

That’s it.  I’m sure those are fine classes – but they miss a big thing.  They don’t emphasis the nature of science.  In fact, I suspect that these three classes might actually decrease the students’ understanding the nature of science.  Since these three courses have quite a bit of memorization elements in them, students might come away with the belief that science is about facts and not model building.

Yes, I’m not too happy about this.  Not only do I think this course is perfect for education majors (who will be the first to introduce science to children in many cases).  I also genuinely enjoy teaching this class. It’s great to interact with students and see them increase their understanding.  There’s nothing quite like being there when a student starts putting different ideas together.  It’s great.

On a logistical note, this course as some other huge impacts.  First – teaching load.  If we have 3 sections of this course, that would be 15 hours (it’s a 5 contact hour course).  Getting rid of the course will lose 15 contact hours for the department.  That’s one instructor position.  That sucks.

Oh, also I usually teach this course during the summer session. That’s going to suck to not have this.

 

 

Trip Report: Texas AAPT/APS Section Meeting

Since this is just a normal plain blog, I can do silly things like this report on my recent trip.  Why not?

Where and Why?

I was invited to give the keynote address as well as a workshop on python at the AAPT/APS section meeting at the University of Houston.  Since this isn’t too far away, I decided to just drive there – it’s about a 5 hour trip.  Not bad, plus I can bring as many pairs of shoes that can fit in my car.  I brought one pair of shoes.

I drove in on Friday and arrived Friday evening – I stayed at hotel on the outskirts of Houston.

A note regarding section meetings.

I really like section meetings.  They are smaller, cheaper, and it’s easier to get around and see everyone.  Oh, national meetings are cool too – but sometimes they are just too big.  Also, who likes paying 500 dollars just for registration?  Not me.

Python Workshop

For the workshop, I used my python material.  This is essentially the same stuff I used at the Chicago Section of AAPT.  Here are some notes.

  • The material basically this stuff on trinket.io.
  • I also have instructor materials and other files posted on the PICUP site.
  • It seems there were about 15 participants. The room had computers for people to use – that helps out a bunch.
  • There was an issue with the projector – it wasn’t quite working.  Someone brought in a backup, but it wasn’t bright enough.  It’s funny how small problems like this can make a big difference when people are learning.
  • Another issue for python workshops – variety of people.  Some people have never used python and some have experience. This makes it slightly difficult.
  • Other than that, I think the workshop went well.  I had one person ask me afterwards how to become an expert with python.  My response was to just keep practicing.  The best way to learn is to learn python to solve particular problems.  It’s pretty tough if you try to learn stuff without a purpose.  Oh, also – sloppy code is fine.

Keynote: Science Communication with MacGyver and MythBusters

Normally, I give a talk that focuses on physics of science fiction or video analysis or something like that.  I’ve talked about science communication before – but in this case I wanted to include a bunch of examples from MacGyver and MythBusters – so I had to make a new talk.

Check out the venue (maybe it’s difficult to see from this pic though):

This is the “club level” of the University of Houston football stadium.  No, there wasn’t a game going on at the time (but that would have been funny).  It was a nice place – the screens were in a weird position, but still it was nice.  Oh, I did make one fairly big mistake.  I was having trouble with the projectors and I ended up with “mirroring” on my computer.  This means that I didn’t see the next slide and and I didn’t have a clock. I really like seeing a clock.

For the talk, I focused on 4 “rules” of science communication:

  • You can’t be 100% correct, but you can be 100% wrong
  • Build a bridge from the science to the audience (complicated, conceptual, or shiny physics).
  • Science fiction is still fiction.
  • Use mistakes as a foot in the door to talk about what you want.

Overall, I think it went well.  Oh, there was one great question at the end.  “How do we use science communication to help people understand climate change?”  My response: we need to focus on the nature of science and understanding of what exactly science is all about.

Finally, here is another picture. This is me on the football field (which was kind of cool).

A Quick Note: Packing for College

My oldest daughter is currently in the process of getting her stuff together.  She is moving away for her first year of college.  Hope everything goes well, but I keep thinking of this scene from The Hobbit.

Yes, in college you will have to do without a great many things.  Honestly, that is part of what makes the whole college experience so great.  It’s not just about classes, but all the things in between (if it was just about classes – it would make more sense to stay home and take classes online).

No, you won’t have everything perfect in college (or in life really).  You won’t have the best shoes for a particular event.  You might have to wear the same pants more than once.  You are going to have to share a room with someone – and a shower too.

But you know what?  It’s not just college – real life is like that also.  It’s not about making everything perfect, it’s about living with what you have.  You can never have a perfect life – unless you learn to enjoy the imperfections that life throws at you.