Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Grad students and undergrad students

Posted by Arjendu on May 7, 2015


An undergrad student doing research with me goes away and comes back a week later with a result. I say ‘nice, let’s do the following with it’. And (s)he goes away and does that and comes back a week later, and we talk again, etc. And things move slowly towards a result and more slowly towards manuscript writing and even more slowly towards publication.

If this was a graduate student, then about the same progress happens in about a day rather than a week. That is, since undergraduate students do research as something squeezed in beyond the classes they are taking, etc (rather than being the central thing they do, like for graduate students), 4-6 hours a week of effort is about standard for an undergrad, and about 4-6 hours of effort a day should be standard from a graduate student.

Whence we conclude that a day in grad student time == a week in undergraduate student time (independent of technical preparation, expertise, length of time a student stays with you compared to start-up time to understand what the project is about, etc); and hence the two years the undergraduate spends (about how much most of them spend with me) is about a semester or so of graduate student time.

This makes me a lot happier about the kind of progress my students have made over the years.

No happier about my own pace of production, though.

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Intro to Newtonian Physics

Posted by Arjendu on March 31, 2015

Yesterday was the first day of Spring Term at Carleton. This is what my teaching journal entry (aka Facebook wall) read:

“What I am teaching: Intro to Newtonian Physics. It’s my first time through since Spring 2008, though I’ve taught some variation about 9 times, including the giant classes at Rice, and the Matter and Interactions versions here. Syllabi are written but not yet printed, the structure of tests, assignments, etc semi-decided, labs are lined up (borrowing furiously from colleagues here), student assistants contacted. The administrative questions from students have already begun. Writing my first lecture, and feeling the butterflies as always.”

The last time I taught it, I went extreme: ‘No lecturing’. This was in 2008, just slightly before the term ‘flipped classroom’ came into vogue, else that’s what I would have called it. It was documented on camera (I still can’t bear to watch the video) by Carleton; you can watch it here if you like: .

I also blogged about it then, and that’s proving useful notes for me this time:
Spring Break and new experiences
So far so good
Stable and unstable lectures
Refusing to throw stones
Almost done.

I am not being that extreme this time, though I think it went well enough. It takes a certain deep familiarity with the material to do things that way and seven years later, I can’t legitimately claim that. So the students are going to get a more lecture + conceptual tests + problem solving version that resembles how I taught it at Rice (I believe they still do things that way there) and also how I taught it at Carleton my first 2 years.

For all sorts of reasons, this Spring Term group of students is very similar to those that I had that Spring Term. It is also a very different group than the majors and first-year seminar students I have had so far this year. There are essentially zero majors or potential majors and many seniors. Almost all the students are taking this course because it fulfills a major or other requirement. Most of them haven’t taken physics in a while if ever, and some of them have expressed anxiety about the physics as well as the math on my first-day survey.

I’ll report back as possible on how this iteration works out.

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The Future of Liberal Arts and Sciences in India (Take 2)

Posted by Arjendu on February 5, 2015

This is a quick note to say that I am part of the organizing committee for a conference continuing to think about the future of liberal education in India. Link to information is below; please let me know if you want to know more:

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Noticing how many women are in the room

Posted by Melissa on January 13, 2015

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s NY Times opinion piece about women speaking up at work has been making the rounds in the past few days. The situations they discuss are familiar to most women with whom I’ve talked. The larger issue of the representation of women in groups, and particularly in leadership positions, has been on my mind frequently on account of several discouraging experiences I’ve had in the past year.

A number of years ago, I was at a STEM faculty development workshop where we had been split into groups to work on a particular task. I happened to be the only woman in my group of about 6 or 7 people; in the debrief discussion afterwards, all of the workshop facilitators had noticed this, but I was the only member of my group who had noticed it. I was somewhat surprised that none of the men in the group had noticed the gender breakdown. I admitted to the group that I usually pay attention to how many women (and women of color) are in the room/group/meeting at most STEM events I go to. I do it without even thinking about it. My question: When I notice the gender makeup and dynamics of a group, under what circumstances should I call others’ attention to it? I tend to keep my observations to myself, but I sometimes wonder if that is the right thing to do.

I asked a physics colleague at another university about this mental accounting, and I learned that she also usually notes how many women are in attendance at physics-related activities. Like me, she rarely shares what she notices with others, but we both find ourselves wondering who else is paying attention to the gender makeup and dynamics of a group, and who isn’t. It can feel exhausting to always notice these details and to feel alone in your noticing. The other day I was reading an article by Adrienne Minerick in the October issue of Prism, the magazine of the ASEE, that made me wonder whether I ought to bring up what I notice more often. Minerick writes, “Simply talking to people similar to yourself about uncomfortable topics such as gender roles does too little to change the status quo. The majority remains oblivious… Well-intentioned individuals who try to be advocates for a minority can still miss indications of a problem.”

When do you notice how many women are in the room, and how that impacts the dynamics? And when do you call that to the attention of others?

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We’re looking for a 2-term visitor

Posted by Arjendu on December 11, 2014

Please let students/post-docs know:

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Carleton College is seeking applications
for a temporary, two-term position at the Assistant Professor level for the 2015-2016
academic year. We seek a recent PhD in physics or astronomy with a strong commitment
to teach in a liberal-arts environment. The position will involve teaching 4 courses over
two terms (either September 1, 2015 through mid-March 2016 or January 1, 2016
through mid-June 2016). The ideal candidate will be comfortable teaching astronomy as
well as physics. There may be opportunities for involvement of undergraduate students in
research, but it is not required for this position. Carleton College is a highly selective
liberal arts college with about 2000 undergraduates located 45 miles south of
Minneapolis/St. Paul and is on a three term per year schedule. Our eight-member
department strives to provide a challenging yet supportive environment for our
enthusiastic and intellectually demanding students. For further information on the
department, visit our web site at
To apply, complete the online application by February 15, 2015 at . The online application should include a cover letter,
curriculum vitae, and a statement of teaching experience and how it has influenced your
teaching philosophy. In addition, you will be asked to submit contact information for
three individuals who can serve as references.
Carleton College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, ethnicity,
religion, sex, national origin, marital status, veteran status, actual or perceived sexual
orientation, gender identity and expression, status with regard to public assistance,
disability, or age in providing employment or access to its educational facilities and
activities. We are committed to developing our faculty to better reflect the diversity of
our student body and American society. Women and members of minority groups are
strongly encouraged to apply

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AAPT recommendations for undergraduate physics laboratory curriculum

Posted by Melissa on November 23, 2014

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a subcommittee of the AAPT Committee on Laboratories to develop a set of recommendations for undergraduate physics laboratories, both introductory labs and labs beyond the first year.  Working on this project has been a lot of fun, and I hope our report provides a useful and flexible framework for faculty at a variety of different institutions.  The report was just endorsed by the AAPT Executive Board, and it’s now available online. While the written report is finished, the members of the committee hope to find  ways to allow lab instructors to continue the discussion about, and contribute specific examples to, the matrix that is at the end of the document.

If you find yourself needing to escape from that particularly annoying uncle or cousin over Thanksgiving, I’d encourage you to step away from the festivities and read the report!

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Remembering Piotr

Posted by Melissa on October 28, 2014

This coming weekend my alma mater is celebrating the life of Piotr Decowski, a beloved member of Smith’s physics department who passed away in May. Sadly, I won’t be able to make it back to Northampton for the symposium. Piotr made an indelible mark on me. I had only one class with him while I was at Smith — Modern Physics in fall term of my first year. Just out of a high school, unsure of my next steps, possibly interested in physics, but also deeply attracted to history and philosophy, I entered Modern Physics filled with equal parts unbridled enthusiasm and immense uncertainty. Would my high school physics background prove sufficient as I jumped into a 200-level college physics course? Did I really want to study physics, and did I even know what physics was? (I come from a family that has a strong humanities bent to it.) Would I fit in at Smith and could I ever live up to the legacy of outstanding women that the institution had produced?

Piotr was exactly the professor I needed to encounter in my first encounter with Smith physics. He was filled with joy and gentleness, and upon setting foot in his classroom, one could not help but share the wonder at just how amazing the physical world could be. Physicists can be egotistical people, who like the exclusivity of the club to which they belong. Not Piotr. He was warm and welcoming. The beauty, the strangeness, the wonder of physics were at the center of Piotr’s classroom. I remember Piotr with an eternal twinkle in his eye. I felt like I was walking with a guide, who, despite significantly more experience and knowledge, still held a quiet, joyous wonder about the world. And that joyous wonder was contagious.

Near the end of my semester in Modern Physics, the department organized a dinner before one of the Five College physics symposium talks. I think the dinner was at Piotr and Ineke’s house, though I’m not certain. It was November, a week or two before Thanksgiving break, but dinner consisted of turkey and cranberry sauce and all the Thanksgiving fixings. Eating Thanksgiving dinner with the junior and senior majors, faculty, and classmates in Modern Physics, I distinctly felt that I was “home”. And Piotr was the person who had welcomed me into that family. More than 15 years since graduating from Smith, I still have not found a group of physicists that feel so comfortably like family as the Smith physicists, and so this weekend my heart will be with the Smith physics family as they gather to remember Piotr.

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Old Friends New Territory

Posted by Arjendu on October 27, 2014

So I am currently at Quantum Optics VII a formerly Latin American Quantum Optics conference that currently is about 1/2 not Latin American and mostly not about Quantum Optics (though it is about quantum mechanics, which is is how I landed up here, invited to give a talk about my recent work).

This conference is organized by, among others, Juan Pablo Paz, who I’ve known for a long time, but met only a few times, and so it’s been nice to see him, and catch up even if briefly as well as with other people I’ve gotten to know from conferences and talks over the years like Andre Carvalho, Carlos Pineda, Martin Plenio … and I know Aephraim Steinberg is around, so all that should be fun as well. This is also my first trip to South America (though so far I’ve barely seen anything particularly given the generic nature of airports and hotels of a certain kind) and it’s my first time pretending to be a quantum optician.

So. The usual term-time conference stuff: Tired trying to get things set up so I could leave for a bit, and from the long long haul here, somewhat — make that very — nervous about my own talk, looking forward to immersing myself in ‘state of the art in quantum mechanics’ after a few months hiatus, and trying to stay caught up on professional and personal emails in the post-conference evenings. But it was hard to resist the invitation, and I am glad I’m here.

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Teaching without writing

Posted by Arjendu on October 24, 2014

Last Sunday I dislocated my right shoulder. Nothing dramatic, no fistfights over the meaning of the 2nd law or interpretations of quantum mechanics or priority for research, nor because my students were mad at me for my supposedly short exam that turned out to be not-so-short … just a simple fall coming up some stairs, combined with a previously unstable shoulder (6 dislocations in the past) that a surgery didn’t seem to have made *that* stable. It was painful for a bit but once it got shoved back in at the ER (‘reduced’ in the medical terminology) I barely felt it.

But I did lose some time sleeping off the anesthesia, and have had to leave my arm in a sling for a while. I’m right-handed, so this made it very difficult to write or grade or do that Ph.D. dissertation external examiner thing I had scheduled for the weekend. I tried ‘voice-to-text’ software, and that wasn’t too bad for most things, but (a) it made me speak like an American — I haven’t purchased the fancier trainable software — and (b) had no idea what to make of words like ‘non-Markovian’, or any other technical jargon I was using around. I managed, somehow, for all those things, and leaned on my family greatly — it’s a nice place to be in life when your child can do your laundry for you instead of the other way around! The silly accident made an already crowded schedule just that much harder for the last few days.

But you know what wasn’t an increased challenge, really, not much anyway ? Teaching my thermal/statistical physics class. This week, I’ve walked in with the printout of questions the students have generated overnight from the reading, told them to go through the questions AND then repeat their transit over the chapter in small groups. They throw questions out to me when needed while I wandered around the class kibbitzing during the discussions, and periodically summarized verbally the central points of each section. It means we’ve marched just fine through the material, finishing with working on some problems in the same small groups. It’s helped slightly that for this part of the term I have the students signed up for short teaching presentations (to get them ready for larger presentations as part of their senior graduation requirement). So I’ve had students do a (previously-prepped) derivation on the board for me as needed. But that was only about 5 minutes out of each class.

Carleton physics students are so used to this sort of reading+questions+classroom-discussion-based format (and I am so used to it myself) that things seem just … normal. And it’s far cry from the ‘chalk and talk’/lecture-intensive world from my own undergraduate (and actually, graduate school, too, now that I think of it) days. I have no real idea how rare this sort of format is for the bulk of physics teaching out there in the world today, but I’d bet it’s rare enough.

You know what was challenging, surprisingly enough? Talking to my collaborators in California via skype. Turns out I use my hands to argue a lot more than I think I do, when it’s about dynamical systems and phase-space in particular. They thought it was pretty funny when I’d get frustrated by my inability to convey what I wanted using only one hand.

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Experimenting with electronic lab notebooks

Posted by Melissa on October 7, 2014

I’m using tomorrow’s Global Physics Department discussion of electronic lab notebooks with Ed Price as a kick in the pants to finally write the post on electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) that I’ve been meaning to write since last spring. Unfortunately, Wednesday nights are busy on the homefront so I’m not sure I’ll be able to join the GPD discussion. Instead, I’ll throw out a few thoughts here, and hopefully catch the GPD recording later.

Last spring I taught our advanced lab course (Contemporary Experimental Physics), which is typically taken by majors in the spring of the junior year. For the first time, I asked students to keep an ELN instead of a paper lab notebook. I spent quite a bit of time exploring options (OneNote, Evernote, GoogleDocs) before finally settling on LabArchives. Although not free for students to use, students only pay $10 for an account, which is not that much more costly than  a traditional paper notebook, and I found the software features and the technical support from LabArchives to effectively meet my needs.

Why did I make the switch to ELNs?

I’ve heard more and more professionals (in national labs, in companies, in university research labs) say that they are using ELNs, and I want to prepare my students for type of experiences that they will encounter in their professional lives. However, I also switched to ELNs for a variety of pedagogical reasons.

  • It’s easier to collaborate with ELNs. Students in a lab group can share their lab notebooks with each other and write comments in each others notebooks. And in some experiments, where each group builds on the work of previous groups, students can access the lab notebooks of those who went before them, without needing to physically borrow the notebook. Additionally, the software logs which students are making comments, and when, so I can see how each member of a group is contributing to the lab notebook.
  • ELNs make it easier for me to keep track of what students are doing. Particularly in the advanced lab course, where final projects take four weeks, it’s inconvenient to collect the lab notebooks from students to see how things are going. (Plus,I hate lugging around a stack of 20 lab notebooks!)  With ELNs, I can check in on the lab notebooks at any time, and for extended projects where much of the work takes place outside of designated lab time, ELNs allow me to track project progress in a less intrusive manner.
  • Because the software time stamps everything, I can tell if the lab notebook is a genuine record of the work as it is being done or if the lab notebook is filled out after the fact.
  • More and more work is being done on the computer so why not keep the records electronically.  It seems strange to require students to print out spreadsheets and graphs and Mathematica notebooks to paste them in a paper notebook.

What worked well with the ELNs?

  • All of the above: easy sharing of notebooks with peers; easy instructor tracking of student contributions and project progress, particularly for work done outside of scheduled lab time; more real-time record keeping. Perhaps most importantly, I sensed that the notebooks were a more genuine record of student work than what I have seen with physical lab notebooks.

What didn’t work well with the ELNs?

  • The lab notebooks contained fewer sketches (particularly sketches of the experimental set-up, physical models, etc) than a traditional lab notebook. Next time, I am going to encourage students to do more sketching on whiteboards, or on paper, and then use their phones to take pictures of those sketches. LabArchives has an app for phones that makes it easy to upload pictures directly into folders in your LabArchives notebook, but I didn’t highlight that feature and few students used it.
  • Although I looked at the student notebooks several times each week, I didn’t comment in the notebooks frequently. More often, I would use my observations of items in the lab notebooks to start conversations during the scheduled lab time. However, in course evaluations, students mentioned that they would have liked more comments from me in the lab notebooks.

What am I ambivalent about with the ELNs?

  • I asked students to bring their own devices to lab for their record-keeping.  Depending on the particular experiment (and the associated  instrumentation, lab space, etc), at times it was awkward to have three laptops close by so that each student could be taking notes in their lab notebooks. As tablets become more widespread, I think this issue will become less of a concern.
  • Although LabArchives allows students to export their notebooks as a PDF so they can have a “permanent” record of their work, I’m not sure how many of my students actually exported their notebooks. Once again, I could have helped address this issue by being more insistent that all my students export their notebooks at the end of the term.

What features was I looking for when selecting an ELN?

  • Each student had to have his or her own notebook, with the ability to share the notebooks with others in the class. I also wanted students to be able to comment in each others notebooks, as well as for me to comment in student notebooks.
  • I wanted to be able to populate the lab notebooks with some materials at the beginning of the term, and I wanted to be able to push out materials to the student lab notebooks during the course of the term, without overwriting anything that students had done in their lab notebooks.
  • Since students were using their own devices, the software had to work on laptops and tablets with a variety of operating systems. I also wanted the option for a phone app so that students could take photos with their phones and import them easily into the notebook.
  • The software had to be able to handle equations.
  • I didn’t want my students to pay much more for the ELN than the would have for a traditional paper lab notebook.

What did the students think about ELNs?

  • Students initially had a hard time figuring out how to organize the ELN, but eventually, each group came up with a slightly different organizational approach. Once that was established, the student response was mostly positive.

I will certainly continue using ELNs when I teach the advanced lab course, and I plan on sticking with LabArchives unless I find something that is a better fit. However, I know that discussions about ELNs elicit strong feelings and I’m interested in hearing about the experiences that others have had. Let me know in the comments if you have you used ELNs in your classes or research lab. If so, what software did you use and how did you like it?  Finally, consider joining the GPD discussion on Oct 8th at 8:30 pm CDT about ELNs.

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