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Pedagogical Goals in BSU Physics Classes

Goals in Core Curriculum Courses

Goals in introductory courses

Goals in advanced courses

I view my role as an instructor as a facilitator of student learning, and I pursue student achievement through a mix of active-learning approaches.  My experience is that carefully designed active-learning and discovery-based class activities, mixed with concise summaries of material and ample problem solving, tend to best address most student learning styles.  However, in any given physics class, students come with a wide range of prejudices, interests, and past experiences.  For this reason, I will tweak my general approach to a particular class’s overall needs to maximize student learning.

One important theme in my teaching over the past four years has been an increasing reliance on quality writing assignments.  I take the view that writing is a critical thinking exercise, and that writing assignments with revision provide students the opportunity to reflect on what they understand about physics.  Currently, I am particularly interested in the use of electronic portfolios in promoting student learning.

Goals in Core Curriculum courses

My primary educational goal in a Core Curriculum physics class is to expose students to the worldview provided by the analytic tools of Physics.  In particular, I want to increase students analytic thinking skills and expose students to the physics of the last century, which has truly changed their lived.

I have taught three core curriculum courses at BSU:  Modern Physics for the Humanist, FYS: Science Fiction Science, and FYS: Scientists at Work.

Modern Physics for the Humanist

The primary themes of the course are conventional and speculative space travel, relativity, quantum mechanics, and artificial intelligence (AI).  I use several movies to highlight each of themes.  For instance, 2001, A Space Odyssey highlights space travel and AI; Contact focuses on relativity and speculative space travel; The One introduces quantum mechanics and cosmology; Paycheck introduces relativity and cosmology; The Planet of the Apes (original) introduces special relativity.

Students take part in an extensive online town meeting considering whether we should pursue a manned expedition to Mars.  This activity was planned following the model the Dr. Anne Hird uses in her classes and presented at the 1st MCO conference on E-learning. 

Science Fiction Science

My first year seminar on science fiction is one of my favorite courses to teach, and I have given it significant revision over the years to make the course a meaningful beginning for the new BSU students who take it.  The course centers on two clusters of assignments. 

First, students chose a science fiction topical group.  These three student groups watch three different science fiction films, and for each film, each student writes a 2-3 page paper on a different assigned topic that I chose after watching the films with this assignment structure in mind.  Typically, each student will write a paper on some aspect of the underlying science in one of the films, a paper on the societal structure or social implication of another of the films, and a paper on some aspect of the literary merit of the third film.  (Each film has one question of each of these types and the students rotate through each question type.)

The science fiction topical groups provide a natural small group for peer-revision.  For each assigned paper, students read the two papers of their partners and provide feedback according to instructions on a particular aspect of the writing.  My expectations for the quality and depth of analysis for each of the three papers increases with each film, as students develop their skills.

The science fiction topical groups also pick one of their three films to present to the class using film clips and a discussion format.  To prepare for the oral presentation, students complete a journal assignment.  In this journal assignment, I lead students down a path of deeper and deeper thinking on the film, culminating in a self-reflection in how their thinking about the film changed as they did more research.  In addition to the oral presentations, students create a poster to present at the Mid-year Symposium for First and Second Year Student Work, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

The second aspect of the course is the student written science fiction short story.  This assignment begins at the very beginning of the term with a creative thinking assignment and continues throughout the semester with outlines, a medium length (4-5 page) research paper on the underlying science, several idea organizing assignments, and three drafts of the paper (at least 7 pages).  I emphasize that the importance of this assignment is to think about how the science drives the story.

Scientists at Work

Scientists at Work is an unusually formatted FYS taught as part of the STREAMS Summer Bridge Program. The sixteen students in the class are incoming BSU science or math majors in the coming fall.  The class takes place over three weeks, during which time the students are residents in one of the residence halls.  The students also complete a college level math course and conduct approximately 30 hours of undergraduate research as part of the FYS and program.

The central idea of the course is to encourage students to reflectively think about their studies and to begin to consider themselves practicing scientists.  Students write two short papers, complete a major writing project related to their research, write daily in a research blog, and create and deliver a group poster at an end of term banquet and the Mid-year Symposium.  The course is taught through the use of an e-portfolio where students write reflectively about their experiences, goals for the fall semester, and learning styles.

The “content” of the course is largely driven by the students’ experience in the lab setting. Students read journal articles about their research and develop questions for their faculty and peer lab mentors from the reading. Since the course is being taken by science and math majors, there is a heavy focus on writing methods and data analysis sections, as well as an emphasis on writing a scientific abstract. 

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Goals in introductory physics courses

My primary educational goal in introductory classes is that students develop an understanding of the world through the analytic tools that Physics provides. It is often commented in the Physics education literature that the typical student views the world in a form of Aristotlean thinking that has been known to be false for over four hundred years. My goal in introductory physics courses is to help students replace this world view with a scientific view based on mathematical, verifiable laws of nature.

I regularly teach the two semester calculus-based and sometimes the two semester algebra-based physics sequences.

Calculus based physics:

I have regularly taught Physics 243 and PHYS 244, a two semester sequence of calculus based physics, since my arrival at BSU in 2002.  The students in the 243-244 sequence are predominantly physics, mathematics, and chemistry majors. 

The view of our department is that the version of these courses taught at BSU must meet the same standards for rigor and material covered as their equivalent counterparts at any major four year university.  This is a challenge for many of our students because calculus based physics is among the most difficult courses (relative to student preparation) at any college or university.  To meet this challenge requires careful planning and execution, and I am confident that, by taking advantage of active-learning methods and frequent student interaction, students in my calculus based physics courses learn material at a high level.

I have been a leader in using online homework, writing assignments, and in-class active learning activities to help students learn in this sequence.  In 2007, I set up the physics department’s first online homework system and have maintained that system for use by myself and other faculty since that time.  I have always supplemented online homework with extensive written “annotated homework;” these are centrally important problems where I ask students to turn in a paper copy of their solution to the problem with meta-cognitive writing about the problem and its solution.  This is an effort to help students think about why the solution to the problem is what it is and how the approach to the problem may generalize to other situations.  In spring 2011, I completely restructured my course to make use of an in-class PAL (Peer Learning Assistant) who helped me to implement full active learning in the classroom. I significantly reduced the amount of my lecture time, replacing it with carefully crafted, sometimes step by step, problem worksheets that the students would do in groups as the PAL and I went from  group to group to help them.

Students find my use of technology very helpful in their learning in the 243-244 sequence. In these classes, I use my tablet PC in the classroom, writing on my tablet and projecting to the board.  The “board notes” are then placed in the course blackboard site after class.  The blackboard site also has copies of old exams, solutions to the homework and exams, blank copies of the class activities and solutions to those, and other learning aids. 

Traditionally, PHYS 243-244 has been a lecture / lab course with three 50 minute periods of lecture (where new material is introduced) and a 3 hour lab (where students learn techniques and see physics in action).  With my assistance, the physics department has transitioned away from this split lecture / lab towards a style of teaching called studio physics.  In studio physics, the entire class period is taught in what would look like the lab – students sit in small groups at tables with lab equipment, usually for two three hour per week sessions.  The role of the instructor is to mix up the class-time between short (ten minute) lectures, periods of student group problem solving, and short lab activities.  In a typical class period, the mini-lecture, problem solving, lab work cycle would be repeated twice.

Algebra based physics:

I am an occasional instructor in Physics 181 and 182, an algebra based physics sequence.  The students in Ph 182 are predominantly biology and chemistry majors with some students taking the course to fulfill GER requirements. Since promotion to associate professor, I have only taught one section of the 181 lab course (in fall 2007). However, that experience was a significant one for me in terms of re-thinking how to teach physics with writing assignments.

In summer 2007 I received a CART Summer Grant to design a new approach to teaching physics labs that is centered on Writing-to-Learn (WTL) best practices.  My interest in this topic stemmed from my realization that the writing we ask students to do in the typical introductory lab (the formal lab reports) are neither well designed from a writing instruction perspective, nor are they well-tailored to helping students learn material that will aid them in the main lecture part of the course.

My redesigned lab was centered on student writing, and each student brought their laptop.  Early in the semester, students would begin the lab period by writing a brief description of the central idea in their own words.  Each group would then read their own descriptions to each other, then revise their personal description and make a “group” description.  As the lab period progressed, students would periodically be asked to write an explanation of the methods being used or the data that was being acquired.  Instead of formal lab reports, students pretended to be mid-1700 century physicists (who would have been doing these experiments for real), and they would write a letter to a colleague in a different lab group explaining what they were discovering.  (The colleague would have to write back as well.)  Later in the semester, students designed their own labs, and these letters became more elaborate because the different lab groups would be using different methods, so that the correspondence partner would not know what the letter writer actually did if the methods were not well described.

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Goals in advanced courses

Physics 403, Mathematical Methods:

My basic philosophy in Math Methods is to teach a course that introduces students in the physics major to the advanced mathematical techniques most frequently used in upper division courses such as mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics.  The topics in the class included linear algebra and vector spaces, ordinary differential equations, partial differential equations, Fourier transforms, and function spaces and orthogonal function decomposition.  Many of these subjects were new to the students and all of them are deep and very difficult.  I expected students to gain a familiarity with these topics so that when they encountered them in future studies they would be ready to understand the physics without fighting the mathematics so much.

My primary goals in the class were that students remember material throughout the term and demonstrate a basic understanding of the more difficult topics.  The main problem I felt I needed to fight against was the typical student tendency to “brain dump” learned material.

To accomplish this goal, I structured the exams and quizzes differently from other classes I taught.  Every two weeks we had a quiz.  On each quiz were two problems that tested current material and one problem that randomly tested material taught in the course to date.  These random problems had the effect of making students “keep fresh” on all course material, even if it wasn’t directly related to the current material. 

Physics 422, Computational Methods in the Physical Sciences:

Physics 422, Computational Methods, is a sophomore-level elective in the physics major.  It was placed on the books by Dr. Jeff Williams during the restructuring of the physics department in the late 1990’s, but was never been taught before my teaching it in the Fall of 2004.  I have repeated the course four times since then, and the physics department has now put Computational Methods in a regular teaching rotation.

The original 2004 version of the course was traditional. It was based on a standard textbook; I lectured for about 1 hour per week; students wrote computer code (in the programming language perl) with my assistance about 3 hours per week; we completed “labs” that basically covered all the typical topics in numerical methods  - i.e., we went through the book. 

In Fall 2008, I significantly revised Computational Methods to have an undergraduate research focus.  I picked a research problem from my research, devoted the last third of the semester to having the students work in groups on it, and then picked the topics the students would need to learn to make progress on the research project for the first two-thirds of the semester – meaning that I explicitly sacrificed the breadth of coverage for greater depth and the ability to get into a real research project. 

The Fall 2008 course moved away from lecture / lab to a very successful team focus. Students gave the lectures and designed the class activities to help the other students learn the early in the semester material – each student would meet with me for about an hour, and we’d work together on how to present the computational techniques, then they would go and come up with a physics problem that could be solved with that technique and write / beta-test a lab to help students do it.  When we got to the research project, each week a different student was the team leader who assigned tasks for work in class and for homework. 

In subsequent years, I have been working to incorporate more common platforms such as MatLab and SQL. I feel that students learning these tools will be better prepared for work in industry.

Physics 409, General Relativity:

General Relativity is not a subject typically taught at the undergraduate level.  It is a very challenging course both mathematically and conceptually for students.  With this in mind, I teach Physics 409 in a mostly formal seminar style with a heavy emphasis on student reading and questions.

To address the mathematical challenges of the class, we began with several weeks of advanced mathematics in lecture with extensive homework.  I believe that the students in the course spent an average of three hours per class completing their assignments for the first three weeks of the term.  The reason such a heavy homework based was assigned is that it allowed the class to develop a language in which we could approach the more conceptually challenging aspects of the theory.

After the first three weeks on mathematics, the class shifted to a largely conceptual mode.  For most classes, I prepared a lecture and the students were assigned reading.  About twice a week, students were required to hand in questions they had about the reading and approximately one page with their thoughts about the question.  These “reading assignments” helped the students read critically in a difficult subject and frequently led to class discussions. 

Physics 438, Electricity and Magnetism:

I have taught E&M in a fairly standard manner with lectures, homework, exams.  I publish before class complete lecture notes online, and I publish full homework solutions online after students have been given a chance to work on the homework without the solutions.  In this course, mastering the computations demonstrated in the homework problems is the goal of the class, so I give a short, three problem quiz every other week with a longer comprehensive mid-term and a long comprehensive final.  On each quiz, two problems are “new” material, and one problem is a randomly selected “old” problem so that students cannot forget what was previously learned.

The students in E&M are serious physics majors; they know they have to learn to do these problems, and they come prepared for that challenge.  I find that student engagement in this class is naturally high, so that I can give a short lecture, do an example problem, assign homework, then spend the rest of the time answering student questions about the homework problems.  It is a class where students come prepared with questions, and we learn to do the problems together.

In the past few years, I have moved this class to a flipped classroom style.  My traditional lectures are available to students and should be reviewed before class.  This lets us work on “prototype” problems in class. 

Physics 439, Mechanics:

Physics 439, Mechanics, is a required upper level course in the physics major.  Mechanics is truly one on the canonical courses of the physics profession that is taken by all physicists.  Thus, there is an expectation within the physics community of what a student who has taken Mechanics will have learned. 

At all institutions of higher education, undergraduate Mechanics is an unusual course in that almost no new concepts are introduced in the class.  Instead of introducing new physical ideas, Mechanics is a skills development class.  In the context of the physics major, Mechanics is the course where students learn advanced techniques for approaching problems and how to apply higher level mathematics (Calculus 3 and 4 and above) to physical situations.

This class has moved to a flipped classroom style in the same manner as PHYS 438.  However, in Spring 2019, we introduced the class as 3 credit course with two hours of lecture and two hours of computational lab.  In the lab, students write code in python to solve problems.  Basic numerical methods (bisection, arrays, Euler Method, numerical derivative) and some advanced methods (relaxation for PDEs, Runge-Kutta) are introduced with an eye towards solving classical mechanics problems.

Physics 458, Advanced Electricity and Magnetism:

Physics 458, or Advanced E&M, is the second course in a canonical two-course sequence at the junior / senior level in electricity and magnetism.  It continues with the same book as Physics 438, and the final three chapters in this book are remarkable. 

Advanced E&M course is very much a lecture / discussion course.  I write formal lectures, which I publish online before class.  I also publish detailed homework assignments with hints.  Instead of publishing full homework solutions, I write into the assignment itself hints that will help students complete the more difficult problems.  In the Advanced E&M course, some of the homework involves annotating and re-deriving key concepts or examples outlined in the text.  Students come to class having read my “lecture” notes beforehand, and we go through the material together.  Sometimes I can speed through calculations at the board, but most often the class is spent discussing the deeper points of classical physics.

Advanced E&M makes use of oral exams for the mid-term and final exams.  Students schedule 20 minutes for an individual appointment.  Present are the student, myself, and one other physics faculty member.  I’ve written a rubric that is used for marking students in the oral exam (included in these materials). We usually ask the students a simple question to start and then see how complicated a question we can ask the student before they start to need help. Students are scared shitless of this, especially before the mid-term which is their first experience where they are required to think on their feet, so they come really well prepared.  But we are very supportive of them, and they know that too.  Generally speaking, students have found this to be a very big learning experience, one that they say they have grown from.  In the end, they like having had to do it.

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