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Curriculum litmus test February 14, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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litmus

 

I received the written comments back on my student evals from last semester.  I had a number of students who were very annoyed with the final project.  The previous two years, the final project consisted of a Matlab project.  After thinking about what a pain that was, I decided to change to a new project: a paper of 10-15 pages that has each student discuss their goals for getting through college.  The general consensus among those who commented was that the project required too much work for a 1 credit class.  There were several comments about how most of the other sections of this class don’t require as much work as I do, but the paper was just too much.

I’m sort of used to the comments about how much work my class is.  I state up front that they can expect 2-3 hours of homework each week…for a 1 credit class (that is, we meet once per week for an hour).  I also figure they had better get used to it, given the expectations of many of my colleagues.

I did find the comments slightly disturbing, however, because the implication seems to be that what I’m asking them to do is a lot of busy work.  In a lot of classes, many students feel that they’re spending a lot of time doing things that they will never do again outside of college.  They’re right, in a lot of cases.  I took a ton of math as an undergrad, and Mike likes to tell people that I’ve forgotten more math than he ever learned.  Sadly, the longer time goes on, the more I think he may be right.

The class I teach, however, is an academic skills class.  This means I am teaching them how to get through school, particularly in the engineering curriculum.  Do you know how to take notes?  What are the key things that are important?  Can you write a lab report?  Do you even know what area of engineering you’re going into?!

These are the things I’m trying to teach them.  My goal isn’t even to get them through the engineering curriculum, though a lot of the things I assign may be geared that way.  I simply want them to get through school and graduate.  I tell them this.  It perplexes me, therefore, how they can view setting goals as a waste of time.

I really have put a lot of thought into my assignments.  I want this class to be useful, and so I ask myself if each activity is something that will help them learn a skill they’ll need to get through school.  In a lot of ways, I’m at an advantage: college is a very constrained environment, and I can tell what skills are useful until they graduate.  After they graduate and get a job, however, their classwork may or may not be very valuable.  It’s something that simply can’t be predicted.

I have had students come back to me and say that they are really glad I taught the class and they do use the skills that I taught them.  I’m just not sure, however, how to make it clear to the freshman in my class that I really am not trying to torture them and that I do want them to succeed.  I can only hope the ones complaining about writing their goals are so motivated and driven that a lack of clearly stated goals has absolutely no bearing on their performance in school over the next 3 1/2 years.

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99 bottles of…oops January 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, science.
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Yesterday, I was helping guide some cub scouts (specifically webelos) through their scientist achievement.  One of the things we had to discuss was Pascal’s law.  Unfortunately, the instruction set on this was pretty limited: read and discuss.  That, to me, means they likely wouldn’t understand it at all, so I felt like a demo was in order.

I decided to demonstrate the pressure change in a beer bottle.  The concept is simple: fill an empty bottle with a non-compressible fluid (so water works, air won’t) and tap on the open end with a rubber mallet or even your hand.  Of course, you want to do this over a bucket because the sudden change in pressure causes the bottle to break at the weakest point, usually the seam along the bottom, and spill it’s contents.

I did this demo for the first time in front of the kids.  (I had ONE bottle of beer.  No, I didn’t imbibe in front of them…I used it to bake bread.)  It worked like a charm.  If I didn’t trust physics so much, I wouldn’t have been okay trying it cold like that.

If you don’t have a beer bottle handy and would like to see this demo, there’s a good video on YouTube:

There are four lights! January 27, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science.
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It’s hard being a physicist.  Pretty much every place you look, you’re seeing some cool physical phenomenon that just screams, “Newton (or some other dead guy) discovered me!”  If you’re lucky, the screaming isn’t followed by an apple hitting you on the head.  Unless you’re a Klingon who is reciting love poetry; then that might be lucky.

Anyway, one such event occurred when I was looking into my coffee mug, which happened to be filled with hot water and a touch of coconut oil for flavor (and medium-chain triglycerides).  Some bubbles were sitting there on the surface, breaking up the layer of oil, and behaving like a lens.  There was an interesting image on the bottom of the cup, which you can see below.

lights_in_cup1

 

As you can see, underneath each bubble, there appears to be something that almost looks like a four on a six-sided die.  It took me a second to figure out what was going on.  Then I realized that, directly above me, were four lights.  If I shift my angle, you can see them quite clearly in the reflection, though the one on the bottom left is partially blocked by my phone.

lights_in_cup2

 

This was surprising to me because this lamp is newly installed.  Our previous lamp in this room had only one light.  It took me a bit to realize that this was why I was so surprised to see an image in the bottom of my cup: it really was something new.

Assume a perfectly spherical circuit November 15, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, research.
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It’s very fun having an interdisciplinary workplace and background.  Last week, I was finishing up some work while a couple colleagues were discussing a problem.  One was a physicist, and the other was an electrical engineer.  They were arguing about how to determine some value when the physicist piped up with, “Just assume the widgets are ideal.”

I was trying hard to mind my own business, but it was too much: I burst out laughing.  Loudly.  It’s probably a good thing because they both stopped and looked at me before anything came to blows.

To get to the other side… September 30, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geology, older son, physics, teaching, younger son.
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If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

If anyone knows who made this comic, please let me know so I can credit them.

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may remember that I compiled a whole series of physics jokes.  I was posting them daily for about two months.  Some people loved them.  I think a bunch of people also unfriended me because of it.

When I did this, I had an ulterior motive in mind: I wanted to tell them to my classes.  I’ve found that students tend to listen better to teachers they think are likable.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the warm, fuzzy personality that many of my friends (particularly those in geology) have.  I come across, sometimes, as a mean, nasty type.

And so the jokes…

They really do work.  Students will loosen up and talk.  They relax a bit.  They smile.  And most important, they don’t think I’m out to get them.  Those endorphins do wonders.

The problem I’m having now is that so many of my jokes are physics related…and I’m teaching freshmen.  While they all know about atoms and noble gases and protons, electrons, and neutrons, many of my jokes cover more esoteric topics.  They give me blank stares when I talk about Heisenberg or Schroedinger or neutrinos…

There’s a part of me that would like to teach older students simply so that I have a more receptive audience.  Or maybe my problem is that I’m teaching engineers and not physicists.  Or maybe too many of them are from farms (see above comic).

But you, my dear reader, are a more receptive audience, right?  And my kids…my kids know what neutrinos are…kind of.  Maybe they’re just laughing at me because I sound funny when I talk about physics.

Incidentally, the punchline to the joke in the title, if you’re wondering, is, “Why did the tachyon cross the road?”

Friday fun: The best videos I’ve seen this week September 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science.
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In hearing about all the racism that surfaced regarding Nina Davuluri, I heard someone mention she’d done a Bollywood dance for her performance.  I had to check it out, and I have to admit that I’m very impressed.  Her kneeling spins are something else.

I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Bill Nye’s cha cha on Dancing with the Stars, but you have to admit it’s kind of cute (if a bit stereotyped).

And speaking of science and music (but not dance), I also came across this wonderful remake of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody called Bohemian Gravity.  I think this one is my favorite this week…it combines some pretty amazing talent with really amazing physics.

 

 

Whistle while you work September 12, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in humor, physics.
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I’m not a big whistler, but every once in a while the mood hits me.  Yesterday after seeing this (it’s about the ‘new’ trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail), my mind travelled to The Life of Brian and, inevitably, this song:

It’s one of those annoyingly catchy (and yes, totally absurd) songs.  While it was burrowing its way through my brain, I started whistling.  Except, I discovered I couldn’t.

As some of you may recall, I had orthodontic work done and finally had my braces taken off last spring.  While wearing braces, I don’t imagine I tried whistling at all because whistling with braces is pretty much a futile exercise.  However, after having all my teeth moved around, I discovered that however I had learned to whistle before no longer works.

In order to whistle (at least the way I do it), one holds the lips in such a way to allow a stream of air to pass through.  The stream is disrupted slightly by the lips and teeth, causing the air to vibrate.  Then you can move your tongue around in your mouth to change the frequency of the resonance, which will change the pitch of the whistle.

It sounds easy, right?  Except that with my teeth in a different position, I can’t seem to get that vibration there.  Everything is in a new spot, so I’m not sure how to place my lips.

The end result is that I’m trying to sing, “Always look on the bright side of life,” which is so darn cheerful because of the whistling, and I can no longer whistle.  Despite the song’s mandate, I found myself a hair depressed…

Making your mom proud (if she’s a physicist) August 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, homeschooling, older son, physics, science.
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One of the classes that the older boy is doing this year is physics.  Rather than give him something very math intensive, I instead chose to have him study from Paul Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics text.  It’s a book I came across after I’d already had a couple years of physics, and I regret not having had that book first.  It does a wonderful job of explaining how physics works and what the concepts mean without drowning the reader in math.

When I picked up the older son after his study session the other day, he began talking about how imbalances in forces are what cause objects to accelerate.  For instance, a car will move forward when the force created by the engine to move the car forward exceeds the forces of friction, gravity (if it’s on a hill), etc.  After listening, I asked the question, “What happens then if the forces become balanced?”

I fully expected him to say that the object would stop moving.  I really did.  This is what the vast majority of students in my physics labs assumed when asked that question.  Their assumption is that the forces must always be out of balance if the object is moving.

His response:

It would really depend on if the object were moving or still to begin with.  If it was moving, it would continue to do so, and if it wasn’t moving, it would continue to stay still.

My response was to yell, “Yes!!!!!” at the top of my lungs and pump my fist.  I’ve been proud of my son many times over the past few years, but few things make me beam as much as displaying a clear understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

The Perseids August 12, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics.
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We’re in the middle of the Perseids meteor shower peak. This means that our giant spaceship, Earth, is currently plowing its way through the debris of comet Swift-Tuttle. Fortunately for us, that means we get a fantastic light show. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you still have time. Tonight is the last night of the peak, but it will slowly dwindle for a few days after that.

We make a point to take the kids out every year to watch. Because, hey, it’s summer in North Dakota! (I would like to watch the Orionids in November, but it is awfully hard to convince myself it’s worth braving the frigid air.) Usually, we stay up and watch (well, except younger son, who has been known to fall asleep on my lap once its about half an hour past his normal bedtime) but this year, there is a waning crescent moon, which means it is up at sunset and then sets itself after midnight. We decided to instead go out to watch at 4 a.m. You know this is pretty exciting stuff when even a teenager gets up quickly and without complaint.

We only got about an hour of viewing before the sun started washing things out, but we easily saw a meteor a minute. This is by far the best shower I’ve seen in years.

I understand that the moon will be much more of a nuisance during next year’s shower, so if you have the chance, it’s worth trying to catch it this year.

And now, I’m going back to bed.

Friday Fun: Cool toys August 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Friday Fun, physics, science, science fiction.
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My birthday is coming up in a few days, and despite the fact that my husband already got me a present, I’m still thinking of other fun things that I want.

He knew I had to have the purple cover.

He knew I had to have the purple cover.

I thought a new pair of running shoes might be in order, but those are no longer in the category of ‘fun’ and more into the realm of ‘must have’!  Also, I got running shoes last year for Christmas, so it would be boring to always get running shoes.

I decided to get in touch with my inner geek and see what she really, really wanted if she had an unlimited budget, space, and time:

Yes, it's a Barbie.  But it's Mars Explorer Barbie!  It's probably the only Barbie I'd ever want to own, but I have to give two thumbs up to Mattel for this one.

Yes, it’s a Barbie. But it’s Mars Explorer Barbie! It’s probably the only Barbie I’d ever want to own, but I have to give two thumbs up to Mattel for this one.

I've been eyeing this one for a long time.  I wanted to have space battles between it and my lego space shuttle.  (Sadly, I'm sure the shuttle would be outgunned.)

I’ve been eyeing this one for a long time. I wanted to have space battles between it and my lego space shuttle. (Sadly, I’m sure the shuttle would be outgunned.)

 

 

I may have to scrounge Ebay to find a Star Trek pizza cutter.  ThinkGeek is out!

I may have to scrounge Ebay to find a Star Trek pizza cutter. ThinkGeek is out!

I do realize they're coming out with a scaled down version of the LHC...but I want the full-blown version.

I do realize they’re coming out with a scaled down version of the LHC…but I want the full-blown version.

And finally, I think I’d book a trip with these guys.  At least the $250k is refundable.

So if you could have anything you wanted…what would you want?

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