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Random thoughts: matter & interactions, nanoscience & disciplines

Posted by Melissa on October 4, 2009

Fall term had me buried with work from Day 1: two new course preps, deadlines for various conference-related items but a lack of time to focus on research, classroom visits by senior colleagues reminding me that tenure review begins soon. (Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out how to write cogently about my conflicted feelings on the tenure process.)

Despite the various demands of the term, I’ve been enjoying the classes I’m teaching:
•        For the first time, I’m teaching the introductory mechanics course based on Chabay and Sherwood’s Matter and Interactions. I appreciate the bottom up approach of Matter and Interactions, including the presentation of a unified view of contact forces developed from the atomic perspective. Last week’s activities provide an example of the innovative nature of the Matter and Interactions approach.  The text emphasizes the ball and spring model of materials, and in class, we discussed how Young’s modulus relates to the effective stiffness of the interatomic bonding in a material. In lab, students measured Young’s modulus of both steel and aluminum wires using a set-up described by Adam Niculescu and Russell Shumaker in The Physics Teacher and expertly built by Mark Zach, our instrument project manager. Then, students wrote a Vpython program to model the propagation of sound through a chain of 100 aluminum atoms with the ball and spring model. They used the program to calculate the speed of sound in aluminum, comparing the results of their model with experimental measurements of the speed of sound in an aluminum rod and the theoretical value of the speed of sound in aluminum, calculated from Young’s modulus and the density of aluminum. As a condensed matter physicist, I enjoyed moving beyond the basic motion of blocks and carts to developing a microscopic picture of materials in an introductory class.

•        The other class I’m teaching this term is a first-year seminar, Phys 100 Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. In addition to the science, we’re also tackling broader questions about ethics, the relationship between basic and applied science, and the interplay between science and society. Another topic we’ve discussed is the role of disciplines in general and, in particular, the connection between nanoscience and the traditional scientific disciplines. Richard Jones’ writings on this topic (here and here) served to provoke our discussions. The students had some interesting perspectives. One question that came up in class: if nanoscience and nanotechnology are interdisciplinary, why is the class labeled PHYS 100? My reply to the students: because I am a physicist, I approach nanoscience with a physicist’s mindset. I teach the course differently than a biologist or chemist would. The question, however, got me thinking about interdisciplinary courses. In order to teach an interdisciplinary course, must the course be taught by faculty members from at least two different disciplines?  Or by a faculty member whose training has been interdisciplinary (i.e., a undergraduate major in one field and a PhD in a different field)? Does an interdisciplinary topic ensure a interdisciplinary class? All questions to ponder when I have more time…

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One Response to “Random thoughts: matter & interactions, nanoscience & disciplines”

  1. quantummoxie said

    I haven’t used Chabay and Sherwood to actually teach a course before, but I have it on my shelf and use it as reference material. Personally, I’m a Tom Moore acolyte (Six Ideas That Shaped Physics).

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