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Falling off a cliff

Posted by Arjendu on January 5, 2010

The adrenalin rush and acceleration of time in how we went from the December break, with its enforced long weekends at Christmas and New Year, to the intensity of Winter Term at Carleton, can only be described by the phrase ‘falling off a cliff’. This term I’m teaching junior Quantum Mechanics in precisely the same formal way as I’ve taught it for the last 5 years, using a 3-stage process that I’ve seen work wonderfully: (1) Assign readings, and ask students to email questions to you (worth 15% of their grade) (2) present a lecture in class that responds in weighting and approach to their questions and encourage questions and discussions (another almost 15% of their grade) (3) pause often to work together on problems, including as much as an entire class day.

I trust a lot about this course now: The above format, the difficulty level, the approach (plunging students into Hilbert Space instantaneously). There are some problematic stretches still — how and when we reconnect with the position-based Schrodinger equation approach they’ve seen before in Modern Physics (I am never entirely sure how much time to spend on deriving the transmission and reflection rates from tunneling theory, for example) and on how we finish the course finally (I have them vote for special topics, and we might land up exploring entanglement (EPR) or identical particles or quantum field theory, but its not clear to me whether that time might not be profitably spent in reviewing everything we’ve learned).

But it’s always a hard ride, particularly the pre-class sessions reading the questions and trying to figure out how to address them. And the issue grows with class size, of course. This year I’ve got 26 kids registered, mostly juniors, the largest yet. I am anticipating many freezing early mornings with coffee, laptop, class notes, and quantum textbooks. I’m kinda looking forward to them, actually :-).

The floodgates of administrative work have opened, as well, and well, here goes.

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8 Responses to “Falling off a cliff”

  1. John said

    This sounds like a great course. What text do you use? What is a typical question that you get from students? Does every student email a question for every class? Have you tried doing this with a introductory class, like M&I?

  2. arjendu said

    The text is Townsend’s “A Modern Introduction to Quantum mechanics”. Typical question: Umm, ranges from “what does ‘relative phase’ mean (basically, clean up some math issues or derivation issues for me, please) to “I don’t get measurement and could we please do a reading course on the side that talks about measurement.” Every student is expected to email a question for every class, yes. I have tried doing this for intro, and it works best when the students can be relied on to focus — as with this class of (mostly) junior majors, or a select group of any kind. There’s other versions of this I’ve tried in the past with mixed results.

  3. John said

    John Townsend taught me Quantum II from that text when he was on a sabbatical at Duke. He was the best teacher I had, and I remember loving that book, especially the the last chapter, which seemed to bring everything together from a year of QM. Such a elegant book, and much less massive two volumes of that we had used CTD-L we used first semester.

  4. quantummoxie said

    I’m teaching it again this spring as well. I’ve been using a draft copy of the as-yet released Q-PSI: Quantum Processes, Systems, and Information by Ben Schumacher and Michael Westmoreland. I heard about it being in development from Bill Wootters and Ben sent me a draft copy. It’s an interesting approach and works well for my students. I have a similar method of teaching as you – very interactive.

  5. arjendu said

    Ian: That book title sounds very intriguing. Do tell more. Or maybe I should ask Ben …

  6. quantummoxie said

    Well, you could do either. In any case, it clearly has a quantum information slant to it, but I like the approach. My only gripe (and Ben is aware of it, but disagreed) is that I prefer the method employed by Tom Moore in his Six Ideas texts – some simple examples are, at least partially, worked out (primarily the ones embedded in the text itself). If you want a copy, you should contact Ben since I think he has to run it by his editor (and his co-author). CUP gave permission for me to use it both last year and this year as a “test” market. This year I’m supplementing it with Aharonov and Rohrlich (Quantum Paradoxes).

  7. quantummoxie said

    Oh, I should mention I think I’m going to borrow some of your grading ideas from above. I may adapt it a bit, though, since I prefer to have a worked out grading rubric for every piece.

  8. arjendu said

    Ian: We should have an extended conversation some time about quantum mechanics and teaching — over a beer or something.

    What kinds of grading rubrics are you talking about?

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