Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Thoughts from the AAPT winter meeting

Posted by Melissa on January 5, 2014

As someone whose job includes both teaching and research, I’ve always found it valuable to attend both research-oriented conferences and teaching-oriented conferences. Reading the literature on physics education just isn’t the same as having conversations and making personal connections with others who are enthusiastic and dedicated teachers or PER scholars. I’ve just returned from a day at the AAPT winter meeting (it was 100 ºF colder in Minneapolis than it had been in Orlando!) , where I had the chance to hear a report and discussion of the progress of the AAPT undergraduate curriculum task force.  I’m part of the subcommittee developing lab guidelines to support this work, and with an upcoming review of our department, the topic was timely. A couple of items that lingered with me from the discussion:

  • When talking about the undergraduate curriculum, physicists often talk in terms of courses. Instead, we need to be articulating the skills and concepts that we want a physics student to learn. Focusing on skills and concepts, instead of course accounting, provides departments more flexibility and room for creativity in the curriculum. However, it also requires more careful coordination between the members of a department because everyone has to agree that particular skills will get covered in particular courses.  The corollary to this point is that spiraling in the curriculum is generally a strength, but only when the spiraling  is well done, not providing too much redundancy or leaving too many gaps.
  • Computation needs to be more fully integrated into the core curriculum. The importance of computation in physics is growing, but few departments have computational methods infused throughout the curriculum. Personally, I’d love to see more connection between all three elements — theory, experiment, and computation — in courses. At Carleton, this can be difficult because the faculty members who are most comfortable teaching computation are often not particularly comfortable teaching labs beyond the first year and vice versa. We need to find better ways to collaborate and support each other as colleagues if we want to fully integrate theory, experiment, and computation.  (I know our neighbor to the north, the University of St Thomas, has made a concerted effort at this integration.)
  • Physicists need to think about what skills and content we can stop teaching, or at least move out of the core, to make more room for new skills and contemporary topics.
  • Engineering, biology, and computer science are much better about including original research or design projects in the first course in the major. Students can (and do) do amazing projects in physics classes, but often that only occurs when students get to the intermediate and advanced classes.

I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to address these topics.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Being the inexperienced teacher

Posted by Melissa on December 22, 2013

Andy Rundquist has a great post about the ways teachers do or don’t constructively support the professional development of other teachers. Andy does a great job capturing something that is often a problem as we become more experienced teachers, namely that it’s easy to become a teaching snob. Rather than sharing our enthusiasm for teaching and trying to engage in conversation, experienced teachers, particularly those using innovative approaches, run the risk of becoming preachy, which then alienates the traditionalists and intimidates the novices. It’s something that I’m guilty of on occasion, and as I do more mentoring of younger teachers, it’s something that I have worked hard to reign in.

This fall, I had a great experience that reminded me of just how important teaching conversations — and the tone of those conversations — can be.  I was teaching our 300-level electronics course; it’s a one term lecture and lab course that includes a mix of analog and digital electronics. By some enrollment freak, the course was almost twice as big as it has been in the past, requiring two lab sections. I was already teaching a full load so we invited an emeritus professor, Bruce Thomas, to come back and teach one of the lab sections. To say Bruce is an electronics guru would be an understatement. When he was a faculty member, he did some amazing work developing the electronics labs, and I think he has probably taught electronics for more years than I have been alive. In addition, Bruce is a wonderful person, who I enjoy spending time with and learning from.

As it turned out, Bruce didn’t just teach the extra lab section, he sat in on every class. I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated by this at first. I had only taught the course once before, and Bruce had a wealth of experience. Once I got over my nerves, however, having Bruce sit in on the class proved to be one of the best professional development experiences ever. Often after class, Bruce would shoot me an e-mail noting things I did that he liked, making suggestions about how he had covered confusing concepts when he taught the course, noting when he thought a homework problem I assigned was too challenging. While students were working on problems in class, he and I would occasionally chat about how things were going. And he was a pair of ears sitting in the back of the class, letting me know when students whispered to one another that something didn’t make sense but didn’t raise their hands to let me know.  It was fabulous!

Bruce and I belong to different teaching generations. He taught in an era when much more class time was spent on lectures and demonstrations and less time on student group work. In observing my class, Bruce commented several times that he was amazed at how much discussion there was and how engaged the students were in asking questions and sharing their thoughts.  I learned a lot from Bruce’s extensive knowledge of students’ struggles with electronics concepts, and he clearly appreciated that even a noisy classroom with much less lecturing could be a good place for students to learn electronics. Moreover, the experience was a nice reminder of how it feels to be the inexperienced teacher, and how a gentle, engaging, supportive colleague can create a comfortable conversation about teaching. It was a humbling and helpful experience, and one that will hopefully allow me to be a better mentor to others.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »


Posted by Arjendu on November 19, 2013

So for some reason I’ve been filmed a couple of times recently, and am here overcoming a basic embarrassment activation barrier in sharing these.

The first time was in talking about the role of liberal arts colleges (in India in particular) along with my colleagues George Shuffelton and Helena Kaufman as part of Carleton’s collaboration on Ashoka University.

The second time ‘skyping in’ for a short interview  in India  — to the delight of my family in India, there I was on their screens, and of course I had no idea what I looked and sounded like, so I had to wait until the episodes uploaded later.  As described by Carleton Media relations: “Arjendu K. Pattanayak, Professor of Physics, appeared on an episode of an Indian TV show entitled Face The People on September 11, 2013. Pattanayak commented on the absence of Indian Universities’ performance from the “World’s Top 200 Universities,” a ranking compiled by QS Stars team on Face The People is a prime-time TV show that discusses India’s most pressing issues and interact with the viewers via social networking services, produced by CNN-IBN, a television channel in India.”  There was — as always, I suppose — a slight confusion about whether I was from Carleton University (Ottawa) or Carleton College (Northfield) but we got over that.

Does anyone ever get used to how they look on screen ?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »


Posted by Arjendu on September 25, 2013

I have been reading about energy — both fossil fuel and non-fossil-fuel — for the last few weeks. It’s part of an attempt to understand something new during my sabbatical and re-tool for my return the physics department and to the classroom.

As I read, I plan to post comments on books and articles that I’ve read. I will start with those that are not very technical.

The first is ‘Powering the future’ by Robert Laughlin. This book takes the perspective of looking at how the world will use energy in about 200 years or so. Taking this long view allows Laughlin to not get too deep into analyzing the technology race between different non-fossil-fuels. It allows him to cut to the bone of the physics behind sources of energy, and do ‘back-of-the-envelope’ sort of calculations to predict how it will work out in the long-term future. His analysis is extremely compressed (the actual text is 122 pages, though there are a further 90+ pages of endnotes including citations and calculations) and the brilliance of his thinking shows. (He *is* a Nobel Prize winner in Physics after all, though about something far from the topic of this book — on the Quantum Hall Effect). He is also a provocative and entertaining writer (there is a remarkable section on robots and how they will tend compressed-air energy storage on the bottom of the ocean, for example). I enjoyed the book tremendously and it clarified the intellectual landscape for me (albeit as a physicist) in a way that previous books had not managed. I would recommend this book strongly to anyone looking for a broad sweep understanding, though I do believe you’d probably benefit a lot more from it if you have a technical background.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Because this is too brilliant not to be shared as widely as possible

Posted by Arjendu on September 19, 2013

Here’s Tim Blais of McGill with a superb video ‘explaining’ String Theory.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Rush Holt

Posted by Arjendu on August 7, 2013

A Carleton alum, a physicist, a former liberal arts college professor, the man who beat Deep Thought at Jeopardy … who wants to put more science in the Senate. What’s there not to like ?

The Chronicle of HIgher Education has an article on Rush Holt’s campaign for the special election to the NJ Senate:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Letter writing

Posted by Melissa on August 6, 2013

Summertime and the research labs are humming, but in addition I find myself doing a fair amount of letter writing – writing letters of support for senior physicists being considered for career awards, writing letters evaluating portfolios of junior faculty up for promotion and tenure, writing letters for students applying for fellowships. And because it’s not December or January, when I am slogging through writing mounds of letters for graduate school and summer research programs, I’ve been a bit more reflective about the task.

While I resent letter writing eating up time in the middle of an academic term, during the summer I find I actually enjoy the task. It’s an interesting opportunity to reflect on how academia measures success. Academia seems to reward the accumulation of individual accomplishments. In writing many of these letters, indeed the goal is to aid in evaluating how worthy an individual is of a particular award or achievement. But in the letter writing process, I find myself feeling acutely aware of the heartfelt professional commitments to our intellectual communities that many of us make. Ultimately, the academic career is relational – how we  relate our ideas to those of others in the field, how we relate our talents and interests to community needs on either a big or small scale, how we relate as mentors or mentees, as teachers or students. As I write letters for individuals along the career spectrum I find myself filled with gratitude that amazing people choose to share their talents with the physics community every day in such a multitude of ways.

Taking the time to write letters, many of which will never be read by the people who I am writing about, serves as a chance to provide the praise or gratitude that I don’t fully express in real life, and knowing that others have written these letters for me at various points in my career makes me immensely appreciative of the community that has helped me get where I am.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Quantum Indians

Posted by Arjendu on August 6, 2013

The Quantum Indians

“t the turn of the 20th century, the world was witnessing a renaissance in the area of quantum physics through the work of great scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford or Neils Bohr. Unknown to the world, three Indian scientists were also making significant contributions to the quantum world with revolutionary deductions, interpretations and theories.

Dr. Satyendra Nath Bose devised a statistical theory of counting photons – a revelation even to Albert Einstein — that paved the way for the two great minds to work in tandem in formulating fundamental theories as the Bose-Einstein Statistics and Bose-Einstein Condensate. Boson, the class of particles that obey Bose-Einstein statistics, was named after Dr. S. N. Bose. Sir C. V. Raman gave the world what is known as the Raman effect, which redefined how we see light and colour. Another contemporary, Dr. Meghnad Saha produced an equation that explained stellar radiation and is regarded as one of the fathers of modern astrophysics. All the three scientists started their careers at the Calcutta University, became Fellows of the Royal Society, and Raman was the first and only Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. 

The film is a tribute to the three exemplary minds, the significance of whose contributions was of vital importance during that time, and even today with great strides being made in quantum physics, fibre optics, nuclear science or astrophysics. They were not only great scientists, but were rooted to the social and political realities of the time and dedicated their lives to modern science in India. Along with being institutions by themselves, they built stellar institutions in the country that inspired many great scientists of the following generations.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Arjendu on July 23, 2013

I was lucky enough this weekend to visit the Clementium complex of Jesuit buildings in Prague  (a 2.5 hour train ride from Dresden), and in particular to climb up the observatory tower where Johannes Kepler worked in the early 1600s. Kepler was invited to Prague by Tycho Brahe (who was court Mathematican in the court of Rudolph II) and after Brahe’s death, Kepler used Brahe’s astronomical observation data to figure out Kepler’s Laws.

Kepler’s Laws, in case you didn’t know, were a huge step in the intellectual transformation of the world in multiple ways among which are that: (a) their existence meant the Earth and humans did not occupy the center of the Universe, (b) they indicated that all planetary motion could be understood by three simply expressible mathematical and geometric ideas and (c) when shown by Newton to be derivable from his Universal Law of Gravitation later in the 16th century completed the leap to modern thinking about physical nature as something that can be understood as explainable by models including forces and math.

A few hours later, right off the Old Town Square, and a few hundred yards from where we were staying, I found Tycho Brahe’s grave  in the Church of Our Lady before Týn. The whole place is gorgeous, and was a deeply meaningful day for me.

The first photograph below shows the view from the Klementium (Czech spelling) observatory where Kepler worked; you can see the castle where Brahe presumably spent some time. The second shows the Church of Our Lady before Tyn.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Arjendu on July 15, 2013

Those who are not otherwise connected to me through Facebook or by being on campus will not have registered this, but the big event in my life in the last few weeks has been that I’ve stepped down from the Dean’s office (it was a three-year rotation, and the three years were up). And it being long enough since I last went on sabbatical, I have the entire year in which to get some physics done before returning to teach in the Physics Department. And perhaps also to start writing again on this blog.

This first post is me getting used to blogging again, so apologies in advance for the stiffness and or irrelevance of the content.

I am spending the first month or so of that sabbatical at the MPIPKS (Max Plank Institut fur Physik Komplexer Systeme; a name I am sure you can decipher even without clicking on that link to get to the English-language index page) in Dresden, Germany, courtesy of their Visitor’s Program, and even more specifically courtesy of my gracious host Jan-Michael Rost. I visited here during my last sabbatical as well, when I met and had good conversations with Andre Carvalho (who was then a post-doc here and is now across the world in Canberra, and where I had the privilege of visiting him about 2.5 years ago). I also started a collaboration with JM’s post-doc Anatole Kenfack  (who seems to have since landed in Berlin) which resulted in two papers, one each on classical and quantum ratchets.

This time the visit is more of a writing residency (I am not really venturing out there to talk to people) to finish up the project on Lyapunov exponents and the quantum-classical transition which I spoke about at SQuInT 2013. I’ve been nursing this project along for a couple of years, and every time I think I have it understood and ready to write and submit, I find a new wrinkle. In the Dean’s office, a roadblock could slow me down by months before I could address it. I’m hoping that sabbatical time will allow me to wrap it up quickly.

I am also using this visit as a reading residency — catching up on articles stored in my ‘to read’ folder, planning the arc of my research for the next few months/years and in general resetting my brain to think like a physicist again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.