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Next step for the Online Physics Department: Science Teaching Journal Club

July 5, 2011

I saw this tweet by Frank Noschese today and was immediately excited.

To me, this is another feather in the cap of the online, distributed physics department. We’ve got the Global Physics Department, and now with a Science Teaching Journal Club. Now all we need is a really ugly building. [1]

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a Journal Club, it’s usually a group of grad students, who get together weekly to discuss the latest research in a particular subject. For me, being a part of a journal club was one of the most powerful experiences in my education, since I was working with full professors and grad students (I was undergrad at the time) trying to sort through the latest findings in The Physical Review, and I came to learn that my physics professors didn’t have all the answers, more importantly, I learned how they went about learning new ideas by working through papers with colleagues, and was thrilled to see that for this hour each week, I could be a a colleague.

In this case of the latest journal club, physics teachers Alby Reid and Alom Shaha have put together a bi-weekly journal club that focuses on research in science education, and meets via Twitter using the hashtag #SciTeachJC. Chats take place at 1930 UK time (this is truly an international group) which is 2:30pm EST. Here’s the schedule for future papers.

Here’s the link to the the first discussion, Doing Science vs. Being a Scientist.

Here are a couple of interesting tweets from the discussion:

https://twitter.com/#!/morphosaurus/status/88315354882908160

In regard to @26Tim’s teweet, I think the ease of access to online collaboration, and connecting with colleagues through opportunities like the Global Physics Department and the Science Education Journal Club make the possibility of science teachers gaining scientific stories of their own all the more likely.

So, I’m going to add this new meeting to my calendar, and looking forward to a chin wag
with my colleagues across the pond in a few weeks.

1. Ugly Buildings. Here’s my tried and true way to find the physics building on any campus—simply ask the nearest passer-by “Can you tell me where the ugliest building on campus is?” In my experience, as physics teacher and college counselor visiting ~100 colleges and universities, I can say that almost without fail, the ugliest building on campus is the physics building. I have found this rule to hold true at small northeast liberal arts schools, almost throughout the Ivy League, large midwest state universities, large technical universities, and even relatively recently built west coast institutions.

Here’s an example from my Alma Mater:

And here’s the parking garage that is not far away:

When the parking garage looks better than your building, you know it’s a physics building.

Now, if a particular campus had a love affair with brutalist architecture, then you may need to refine your definition of ugly to include “most poorly maintained and visually non-descript,” in order to make sure you get the physics building and not the brutailist dorm that everyone hates.

I’ve also spent some time thinking about why this is. After all, if you walk into almost any lab, you’ll find it littered with $10,000 vibration damping tables, crazy expensive vacuum systems, Ti-Sapphire lasers, and who knows what else. And I think this is the clue to the answer. Most physicists will spend an almost unlimited amount of money on an experiment to tease out a new discovery in their field, but they could honestly care less about the color the walls are painted, so long the paint won’t outgas and contaminate their ultra high vacuum setup. I can just imagine the physics department conversations with the the architect. Architect: “You’ve got a $100 M budget to build your building.” Physics department: “Ok, let’s see—if we build a giant brick warehouse for $100,000, that leaves us $99,900,000 to spend on equipment, and we won’t have to come to any more of these dumb meetings.”

Of course, my sample is limited, and if you have counterexamples to disprove my proposed theory of physics department location, I’d love to see them.

It also occurs to me that if the GPD is going to take its rightful place as a global physics department, we should start work on a virtual building whose ugliness draws from the ugliness of all the other physics buildings around the world. Maybe someone could design a model in google sketch-up and we could use it as a logo. Nah, too much work.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2011 1:18 am

    Reines Hall at UC Irvine is pretty good-looking:

    http://www.uci.edu/virtualtour/academics/reines.html

    But then, it’s not just for physics. Though I think the overwhelming majority of the building is physics. Also, there’s a markedly more ugly building right next to it (Rowland Hall, the chemistry building if I remember correctly).

  2. July 6, 2011 7:37 am

    Not a counter-example, but the Carnegie Mellon physics building is so ugly it’s kind of cute. Looks like a turtle eating something.

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