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).

Update on Python Physics Curriculum

So here is the deal.  I had this idea.  The plan was to include numerical calculations into the intro physics curriculum by writing a sort of online textbook.  Or maybe just redo my Just Enough Physics ebook to include more numerical calculations.  Anyway, this is what I came up with. It’s written with trinket.io – an online implementation of python that pretty much rocks.

Here is my curriculum (it’s incomplete – but totally free).

Introductory Physics with Python

Here are some of my own thoughts on this curriculum (including using trinket.io):

  • It’s free and online.  That’s mostly good – but I don’t know if online is the best format for physics.
  • There is one thing about trinket.io that makes this rock.  There is python RIGHT IN THE PAGE.  Readers can view and run code – no logging in, no saving, nothing.  Just edit and run.  No barriers.
  • It has the same idea as Just Enough Physics in that it goes over the basic stuff – but doesn’t overload the student with tons of different ideas (no fluid dynamics, waves, buoyancy, sound…).  It’s not that those are bad topics, it’s just too much.  Too much.
  • Homework.  Students want homework questions.  I sort of added those in – but students seem to want traditional homework questions.

Now for the part that needs work.  Well, all of it needs work – it’s not complete.  But I made an error – I figured I would finish this curriculum as I was using it to teach the summer session of physics, but the pressure was too much.  In the end, I think I made it too much like the traditional format of a textbook (with the traditional order of topics).  Really, I started along the best path – but went off the rails when I wanted to do a problem that involved new physics.  So, I just added that new stuff in there.

I need to rethink just what I want to cover – and here is my new plan.

  • Kinematics in 1-D and 2-D. I like starting with kinematics because students can model motion and this works great with numerical calculations.  The one problem is that you have to use acceleration instead of change in momentum – and this messes up with my momentum principle.  Actually, maybe I will just do 1-D motion so that I don’t need vectors.
  • Forces. I don’t really want to focus on forces and equilibrium, but the students need this to do more stuff.  In this, I need to do the following.
    • Vectors.  Boom – need vectors.
    • Special forces: gravity, real gravity, maybe Coulomb force.
    • What about friction, and forces of constraint (like the normal force)?  Here you can see how it gets out of hand.  Friction is super crazy if you think about it – so are normal forces.
    • What if I just did simple forces – like pushing with your hand or rockets?
  • Momentum Principle.  Here I need to make a connection between forces and motion.  Since I used acceleration before, I need to make a connection between the momentum principle and \vec{F}_\text{net} = m\vec{a}.  Honestly, I hate calling this Newton’s Second Law – it seems wrong.
    • But what about circular acceleration?  How do you deal with that?  I don’t know.  Maybe just avoid it for now.
  • Work Energy Principle. I think this is mostly ok – except I need to introduce the spring force and spring potential energy.
  • Angular Momentum Principle.  My initial idea was to cover “Three Big Ideas” – momentum principle, work-energy, angular momentum principle.  However, there is SO MUCH baggage associated with angular momentum principle.  Much of this stuff is just beyond intro-level students.

I think I have a new plan.

  • Start with kinematics in 1-D.
  • Forces – but simple stuff.  No friction.  No normal forces.  All the examples will be in space or something.
  • Momentum Principle and acceleration. Again, normal stuff.  No forces of constraint.  Mostly space stuff because that will be fun.  Projectile motion stuff too.
  • Work-Energy Principle.  Springs, gravity, dropping objects.  Orbits.
  • Special cases.  Instead of Angular Momentum, I’m going to go over forces of constraint, friction, normal forces, circular acceleration.

The end.  Oh, I need to make sure there are plenty of exercises for students.  Rewrites coming.

Numerical Calculation Collection

The following are some of my best posts about numerical calculations.