Innovative Teaching, Innovative Students

My Modern Physics (PHY210) students perform experiments most weeks and write up a formal lab report.  We do not use lab reports in Intro Physics, so this is a new task for many of them.  While I provide extensive written documentation regarding the required structure and my expectations, many students struggle to execute a good lab report.  After grading the first lab report, I realized that many just need a good example of what they are aiming for.  However, I can’t easily provide an “example” report – would it be over a lab no longer used?  Would it be a “real” student report, or a fake one I wrote?

I decided to have them refer to journals (such as Science and Physics Today) to see professional quality papers, which serve as an appropriate model.  Of course, students won’t fully understand these papers – but they will see the sections that appear in the articles, the use of inline citations, and the clarity with which procedures and results are presented.  My plan was to make this an “extra credit” assignment, partially to help offset the low scores on the first lab and partially because I hadn’t planned for this assignment when I wrote the syllabus.

I didn’t have a great idea on how to have the students execute this project – I knew that I was going to hand them journals and ask them to relate the articles to the lab report rubric.  One of the students saw the pile of journals and asked if we were making a physics collage – oh!  Some of the students were quite excited about this option, so I told them that the delivery format was up to them.   I was a little concerned when one student asked if there was a maximum size the project could be…

A few different approaches were used, and I was quite impressed.  They all demonstrated meaningful engagement with the process of connecting these articles to the lab report rubric.  But some of them also incorporated glitter paper, lights, and stickers!

 

I’m really enjoying PHY210 this semester, and I think a large part of that is due to the creativity and enthusiasm that the students are bringing. Often there isn’t a place in physics class for glitter paper or gel pens – but I think I have created a class where students can express themselves (perhaps to excess). Not only are student attitudes more positive than I typically see, but the grade distribution is also quite high. This is a class about relativity and quantum mechanics, so no one would say it is easy – but it might be at the level where students are excited to rise to the challenge.

3 College Rankings I am very proud of

The US News and World Report rankings are always interesting.  The “value” the rankings hold is that students and their families may start with the rankings or consult them when evaluating different colleges.  So, we celebrate when we are ranked well since that means that more students may consider us – or even discover us – during their college search.

This year we received 3 rankings that I am particularly proud of:

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Why I cancel classes on Election Day

When I teach on Tuesdays I don’t hold class on Election Day.  While I think every minute in class is very important, I think it is more important for our students to participate in democracy.  Below is the message I sent to my students this year:

 

Dear PHY210 Students,

As you may have noticed on the course calendar, we do not have class on November 6th because it is election day.  Please note that the college is not closed, and you may have other classes that day.  However, I choose to not hold class on election day.

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Advanced Lab (PHY311) in Spring 2019

This coming spring (2019), the “Advanced Lab” course will be offered.  This will be the second time I have taught the course, the last time being 2015.  This course stresses professional experimental skills, such as:

  • Maintaining a lab notebook
  • Rigorous error propagation and uncertainty analysis
  • Non-linear fitting with Minuit (via a Python interface)
  • Utilization of equipment documentation and independently performing lab with minimal supervision/guidance
  • Creating lab reports in the style of publications using LaTeX
  • Peer review publication
  • Reading primary literature
  • Designing experimental investigations

Labs include nuclear spectroscopy, superconductivity, measuring the universal gravitation constant, microwave scattering, measuring the index of refraction of air, and others!  I hope to have a new experiment involving cosmic ray muons available this year.  Students choose the majority of the labs they do, and design their final lab.

This is one of our “Advanced” courses (along with PHY361 and PHY371) that require Modern Physics (PHY210) as a pre-requisite.

A Teaching Haiku

Agnes Scott College just hosted Cathy N. Davidson for our Founder’s Day Event. There was a workshop for faculty afterward, where she asked us to introduce ourselves with a Haiku that captured our teaching pedagogy. While we were encouraged to share it on Twitter with #AgnesScott #NewEducation, I’m not on Twitter. I want to post – and discuss it – here:

Most physics is hard
The real world is challenging
Team work in Quantum

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Getting ready for fall semester!

My summer has been filled with wonderful travel and research, but now I am 100% focused on fall courses.  Both of my fall courses are getting revamped!  Intro physics has a very new structure, and electronics has been changed from a two-course sequence to a single course.  Both of these courses need new schedules, activities, and assignments.  While I have been working hard all summer, getting to August has accelerated my work!

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