Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Have I recently said how much I love this gig ?

Posted by Arjendu on September 26, 2014

I huffed and puffed my way on bicycle up the 2nd Street hill on the way in to teach this morning, coming in early enough that there was barely anyone else on campus. I wasn’t really focused on the sights, typical enough for an American college campus: Trees changing color, calm greens, expectant academic buildings. I was distracted by how I was going to approach today’s class, which was on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The actual content was simple enough, and could be summarized easily, and in fact I had barely enough material to cover 2 whiteboards when I did write it down in class. But I knew the ideas were troublesome, and needed careful discussion, since as always the students had emailed questions about the readings (the last one had come in after 2AM, which meant that at least one student wasn’t going to get much sleep before my 8:30AM class) so I knew what the lay of the land was (and none of it was surprising, really). In one of my pockets lay a handful of dice, which were going to be used in one of my ‘demos’ about ‘typical states’. And, well, given how much I have enjoyed understanding this deeply subtle and immensely powerful idea that governs the behavior of the Universe (‘Entropy increases’), perhaps it wouldn’t be surprising to characterize my state of mind, as I pulled in to lock my bike and catch my breath, as: happy. Happy to be struggling with these ideas, happy to be anticipating my class of majors as I get to know them, happy that the book I had gambled with seemed to be doing fine. Happy.

It’s been very fun but challenging as well to return to the Carleton classroom. So I would be lying if I didn’t mention that, of course, I was happy that it was Friday.

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Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics

Posted by Arjendu on July 19, 2014

This fall I will be teaching Carleton’s junior level thermal/statistical physics course. It’s an annually offered course and for various reasons has been one of the courses furthest from equilibrium in our Department. That is, it has always been at least partly or fully required (let’s not get into how we manage to partly require something, that’s a whole different story) but its format, placement in the curriculum, instructor, syllabus: all of those state variables have fluctuated greatly since I came to Carleton.

The topic itself allows for such a wide variety of interpretations and paths. Looking at its place in the curriculum, the possible uses to which this knowledge will be put in future classes or professions, my sense of the course is that it must follow and connect both the macroscopic empirical approach of thermal physics and the microscopic bottom-up approach of stat mech. And also, even though I’ve mainly been presented this material as a ‘methods + models’ theory course, it’s increasingly clear to me that it must include some real world considerations (such as energy efficiencies, etc).

So — as I return to the Carleton classroom after 4 years away — the questions I have been brooding over include: How should I teach it? What should what path do I take? I’ve taught it once before but that was seven years ago, and I’m definitely starting from scratch in building a syllabus, and that almost always comes down to selecting a text. All this apart from format — how much lecture versus discussion? what kinds of open-ended problems, and when?

Here’s where I stand: I have personally been lead through some wonderful treatments (the Kittel and Kroemer version as a 3rd year student at St. Stephen’s College with the great Dr. Popli was where I had the most fun, and I am familiar with paths through Reif, Pathria, etc, etc). I also spent about 5 years as part of the Center for Statistical Mechanics at Austin though my own research has intersected with statistical mechanics on rather abstract issues about the behavior of entropy and signatures of chaos and irreversibility and decoherence, etc. If anything, as a (semi-)specialist, it is harder to gauge what topics should be considered absolutely necessary, and I am less clear about what is intuitive (I don’t remember the bliss of my ignorance that well anymore!), what the right pace is for going over fundamental laws versus doing applications, etc, etc.

In the last few weeks I have been reading/skimming multiple textbooks, reading up on approaches, getting a sense of pace. My short-list for texts — and it’s likely all three books will remain open on my desk for the next few months — are Kittel and Kroemer (‘Thermal Physics’), Schroeder (‘Introduction to thermal physics’), and Stowe (‘An Introduction to Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics’). Whichever I go with, it’s going to be a close call and the choice depends — whether I like it or not — as much on things like what works best as the core for my 9.5 week term, and where Carleton students are in particular, as on the approach. Despite K+K’s name, it’s really much more stat-mechy in its approach, which is both where I am happiest and also what I am trying to avoid. Both Schroeder and Stowe weave stat mech and thermo together, and I think the integration is more seamless but also idiosyncratic in Stowe. I have also considered doing one book as the core text and another as supplemental reading, but that’s rather unlikely.

Something I like to do when brooding over a course like this is to find a good layperson’s treatment first if possible, to remind me what it’s all about, and to broaden my vocabulary for connecting equations and intuitions. I picked up Peter Atkins’s slim 100-page treatment (“The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction”) and got through 3/4 of it while on idle during some parentally required down time. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an excellent stripping down of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics to the absolute basics. He moves between the microscopic and the macroscopic very nicely. And his chemists perspective is really helpful for me in ‘keeping it real’.

The ideas, rules, and relationships of this area are among the most subtle and counter-intuitive and yet foundational. What’s more foundational than the Second Law, about which Einstein said: “It is the only physical theory of universal content, which I am convinced, that within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts will never be overthrown” ? And yet one bumps into these ideas when thinking about day-to-day issues such as engines and work and chemical reactions.

It should be an interesting fall, particularly given that I will be doing an Argument and Inquiry Seminar on energy issues at the same time.

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Ramblings on teaching measurement uncertainty

Posted by Melissa on July 15, 2014

A couple of my colleagues and I have curricular development funds this summer to explore how we can better integrate computational and experimental activities in our curriculum. One of the topics that came up in our discussions yesterday was uncertainty: teaching propagation of uncertainty, getting students to appreciate what the uncertainty associated with a measurement really means, and the role of uncertainty in computational as well as experimental problems. As someone who teaches a lot of lab courses, I can’t tell you how often students will see two values, and their associated uncertainties, and say, “These values don’t agree because they don’t overlap within the uncertainty.” Argh!

As a department, we could probably do a better job making the discussion of uncertainty more coherent throughout our curriculum, and I know that I could do a better job of reinforcing the importance of the uncertainty in the classes I teach. One of my colleagues writes homework and exam problems regularly that require calculations with uncertainties. On the other hand, when I am not in the lab, I rarely include uncertainties in the problems that I ask students to tackle, which I think sends a message that uncertainty is peripheral.

Looking at the broader physics education landscape, when it comes to teaching uncertainty, there seem to be two groups: those who have heard of the current international standard (Evaluation of Measurement Data – Guide to the Expression of Uncertainty in Measurement – known as GUM and published in 1993) and those who haven’t.  GUM only appeared on my radar two or three years ago. This spring was the first time I introduced students in our advanced lab course to the GUM method for handling uncertainty.  If you aren’t familiar, Andy Buffler and Saalih Allie at the University of Cape Town and Fred Lubben at the University of York have developed some nice curricular materials for introducing the GUM approach in introductory physics classes (Curriculum and TPT article).

I wonder if GUM will ever gain a more significant following. It hasn’t made many inroads beyond the metrology community, and among educators, the implementation is not particularly widespread, despite the clarity with which I think it helps students navigate the maze of measurement uncertainty. For all you physics educators out there, have you heard of GUM? Do you use it in your curriculum? And if you do, what do you see as the benefits and drawbacks?

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On being department chair

Posted by Melissa on June 12, 2014

[Full disclosure: In the past year, I’ve started at least four or five different posts about various chair experiences and then abandoned them because they seemed too whiny or too close to events going on in the department or they didn’t convey my thoughts clearly. This post emerged from looking back on all those half-written posts.]

What is it that makes being department chair such a character building exercise? Maybe it’s the amount of paperwork that needs my attention or the number of meetings I find on my calendar? Maybe it’s the sometimes difficult personalities of students or colleagues? Maybe it’s the unexpected fires that flame at the most inopportune times which I have to help extinguish? I’m in my second year as chair, and it never ceases to amaze me the amount of energy this position zaps. The idea of working to maintain and improve the quality of the department community for students, faculty, and staff seems appealing, but the reality of being chair is something different.

Ultimately, one of the chair’s jobs is to look out for the health of the department, both short-term and long-term. That doesn’t sound too terrible, and under the right circumstances, it could be appealing! But there are times when the decision that is in the interest of the long-term health of the department may be a decision that I personally don’t like. It’s a strange position because as a member of the department I have a vested interest in the decisions that are being made, but the best decisions from the department chair perspective may not be the best decisions from my personal professional perspective. In many administrative positions, one does not have to live the direct consequences of one’s own decisions, but that’s not the case as department chair. For example, when I put together the course schedule, it’s not just the courses of my colleagues that are on the board, it’s also my own courses. As chair, I feel compelled to put department interests above personal professional interests. Thankfully, often department interests and personal professional interests align, but when they don’t, the role can be uncomfortable.

Since becoming chair, I can’t tell you how often colleagues at other institutions tell me about disastrous department chairs they have had. As I reflect on these stories, it seems that the tension between personal professional interests and department interests is the source of much chairing drama. Sometimes the stories are about chairs who always make departmental decisions that support their personal professional interests. Other times, the stories are about chairs who won’t make any decisions, and in some cases, this reluctance seems to come from a desire to not have to make the difficult decisions that may not align with the chair’s personal professional interests.

For current or former chairs out there, what did you find most challenging about the position and how did you cope?

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Ashoka University -related event in Bhubaneswar this weekend

Posted by Arjendu on May 7, 2014

On the off-chance that you follow my blog and live in Odisha/Orissa and don’t know me on facebook, a link:

“Physics for Poets’ Workshop (4 PM – 5 PM)

We will consider together the answer to questions ranging from the fun (‘What is the relationship between stroking a cat’s fur and light?’) to the philosophical (‘Can human beings have free will ?’, ‘Why can we predict hurricanes but not earthquakes?’) and the practical (‘What does it mean that all forms of energy we use are actually coming from nuclear energy?’, ‘If there is conservation of energy, why do people say the world is running out of energy?’). The goal is to have fun thinking about the world through the principles of physics and to leave you seeing the world in a different way. “

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Context matters in discussions of flipped classes

Posted by Melissa on January 29, 2014

Today, between dealing with a bunch of departmental business and reading for the Carleton English Department Tristram Shandy marathon, I was able to drop in on a local learning community lunchtime discussion of flipping the classroom. This learning community is planned by fabulous members of our IT and library staff, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion. One of the interesting topics that came up is whether the expression “flipping the classroom”, as it is usually employed, gives a misguided impression of what goes on in classes at small liberal arts colleges.

Often when people hear about “flipping the classroom” they hear about putting recorded lectures on-line for students to view outside of class, with class time then being used for group work, problem-solving activities, and discussions. At a place like Carleton, even without flipping the classroom, much class time is already filled with group work, problem solving activities, and discussions. So if classrooms are already interactive, what does flipping the classroom mean in a Carleton context? I don’t recall who first articulated the idea in our discussion (not me — comment if you deserve the credit) that at a place like Carleton we aren’t using technology to get rid of long boring lectures during class time, but rather we are using technology to optimize the face-to-face, interactive classes that we already have. In our context, flipping allows us to make classroom activities richer and aimed more particularly at places where members of a class are stumbling. Perhaps, such nuance doesn’t matter in the big picture conversation, but it is a distinction worth making when engaging with folks who are skeptical that technology has much to contribute to the small liberal arts college classroom.

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Back to TO

Posted by Arjendu on January 26, 2014

I spent my post-doctoral years in Toronto, a city I grew to love greatly by the time I left for my job at Rice University.

I’ve been lucky enough to maintain contact over the years with my former adviser Paul Brumer, who I thought was a very ‘senior’ person by the time I joined his group, but was probably younger then than I am now, and who incidentally did his own Ph.D. under one of this year’s Nobel Prize winners (Martin Karplus). The contact has been mostly pretty sporadic and casual, but once in a while I run into him at a conference and we have a great conversation about current ideas and then we wonder why we don’t get together to talk more often.

This being sabbatical year, with fewer excuses, but still plenty of parental constraint et al, a visit was possible, and I’m off to speak there next week. The last time I visited was 2010; the research story has progressed just about enough since then for me to have something new and fun to say, but I have to say I *am* nervous about going in front of some people I really like and respect a lot to tell my new story. But it’s also why I am looking forward to it — I’ve been thinking in a very focused matter about recent results, have cleaned up my data and understanding, and look forward to feedback (and all that’s just the talk). There’s also the week of conversations with whoever’s available, and with any luck some good meals in Toronto with colleagues/friends.

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The Future of the Liberal Arts and Sciences in India

Posted by Arjendu on January 15, 2014

I spent a lot of last week in India, there to participate in a conference on the future of the liberal arts and sciences in India; the schedule was packed and amazing as you can see for yourself:; the entire conference was actually streamed online and is available in video format

At some point during the conference, I was interviewed about what I thought about it, so here’s the video:

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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.

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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.

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