This spring semester (starting in 2 days), I am excited to have an unusual teaching semester. I will be teaching PHY203, the second-semester of calculus-based Introductory Physics, and PHY311, our Advanced Laboratory course. This second course is particularly special to me – the equivalent at my undergraduate (8.13) is the class that showed me that I could be a physicist. I haven’t taught the course in 4 years, so I have some major changes and restructuring to do!
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.
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.
- #1 Most Innovating Liberal Arts College
- #2 Best Undergraduate Teaching (Liberal Arts Colleges)
- #1 Liberal Arts College that Promotes Social Mobility
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.
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.
On Sunday, March 25th, we invited the Tenzin Gyatso scholars to have dinner at Prof. Lovell’s house and then tour our campus Observatory. The Tenzin Gyatso scholars are monastics in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who study science at Emory for two years. The current cohort includes 4 monks and 2 nuns, many of whom I first got to know in India. While the faculty types provided dinner (largely South Indian food!), the monks helped make Chai at the end of the dinner. After dinner, everyone saw the historic Beck telescope – though the sky was cloudy so we didn’t get to see any stars through it. Prof. Lovell then treated us all to a great planetarium show.
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
Many students ask me for recommendation letters and I take the responsibility very seriously. A recommendation letter should showcase a student’s strengths and convince the selection committee that this student will be excellent for the summer program, scholarship, or graduate program. In order for my letters to do this, I’ve established a few policies to ensure that I have the information and time required to have each letter be as strong as possible.
I’m frequently a little jealous of my astronomy colleagues – they teach the courses that are more fun and get to show a lot of amazing pictures in their talks. Physics, when compared to astronomy, is less fun, more intimidating, and waaaaay less pretty. With all of my astronomy colleagues up north viewing the totality, I had the opportunity to be the “astronomer” on campus today.
Quantum Physics, PHY361, will be offered in Spring semester of 2018.