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21st century physics update

November 27, 2010

In a previous post I mentioned sending a email to my students to see if any of them might be interested in learning some modern physics by watching and discussing Physics for the 21st Century with me.

I got 3 positive responses, and it turns out they were all in the same class, so we’re going to try watching these during our common Tuesday morning free period when they don’t have much to do. We watched our first video on Tuesday, featuring, neutrino physicist Bonnie Fleming describing how she’s using the MiniBooNE detector to help solve some mysteries about neutrino oscillations. This video (30 minutes long) was divided into two segments featuring two different scientists, and we watched only the first half.

Some good things:

  • I asked the students to write questions as they watched the video. This was a great idea, because they wrote Tons of questions. Our disucssion afterward focused on relativity, how we find muons on earth, even though their lifetimes aren’t long enough for them to reach the surface from the atmosphere where they are created, the standard model, and all sorts of other questions
  • I love that the films, so far, are centered around the daily lives of scientists. No matter how esoteric or incomprehensible the physics they are studying gets, focusing on individual scientists, and the joy they take in discovery grounds these films, and draws a rich connection between each of these stories. My students will certainly walk away from this “class” having a better sense of what scientists do every day, and the enjoyment that they find in their work.
  • The films show real data. It was great that the kids could see some of the real data from the various neutrino detectors used by Dr. Fleming. Even if they don’t understand all the details of how a phonotmultiplier tube works, they can see that it produces data just like our motion detectors, and there are lots of questions to be asked both about how this data is gathered, and what it means.
  • There are some great activities in the facilitators guide. I just briefly asked them if the nucleus of an atom were the size of a tennis ball, where would you find the electrons? They were stunned when, after a bunch of guesses, I told them they closest ones would be 1000 meters away. It again goes to show just how most textbook illustrations of the atom poorly communicate the true size and scale of the atom.

The not so great:

  • These films would not be enough to sustain a course for students without some significant background in science. I think the creators of this project have realized this, which is why they have all sorts of additional interactive labs, and readings, but I’m still fairly certain that you cannot just take all this stuff off the shelf and turn it into a Physics for the 21st Century elective class or something.
  • This is not very hands on. While the interactive labs are ok, this isn’t physics as I conceive of it. The kids really can’t see a photomultiplier tube, take it apart, or do any of the other hands-on things that might help them to get a real feel for particle physics. At best, this can only be a spark to get them started on the journey.

So that’s were we are now. I think this is going to be a low-cost free way to give my kids exposure to some of the most cutting edge ideas in physics today, and also push me to think about how to explain things I’ve never really thought about. We’ve also started a blog (naturally) to document our progress: 21stCenturyPhysics.

Anyway, I think this could be a fun, free, enrichment activity for any teacher with a small group of interested students. If you give it a try, please let me know. It’d be great to put our groups together for a discussion or two.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2010 5:17 pm

    No RRS feed for the blog you pointed us to?
    http://burkphysics.com/wordpress/21stcenturyphysics/

  2. December 18, 2010 5:43 pm

    No, I hadn’t set one up yet, since I’m not sure if the blog will really take off or not. But If you’re interested in following it, I guess I’ll give it a shot…

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