Filed under professional development

WIP conference

2013-01-19 13.17.27


Last weekend I and five of our female physics majors went to the Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This was the third time Wheaton has taken a group there, and the second time I have gone. It was again a great time! My students always seem to come away very pleased to have (finally) been around more women in physics, as they are often the only female in their physics classes here, or at best one of two or three. (As one other faculty member noted, sometimes female students even seem a bit uncomfortable being with other female physics majors! Apparently he had to tell his, “Go and talk to everyone! These are your people! You are finally around your people!”)

Major kudos goes to the NSF for providing significant financial support, which covered my students’ food and housing expenses, and to my department for covering mine as well as our transportation cost. Major kudos also goes to the organizing team at UIUC, including Kevin Pitts and Toni Pitts and their students.

While I was there, it was nice to connect with some Twitter folks. I met Arlene Modeste Knowles, who is the diversity coordinator for the APS (and is on Twitter as @APSDiversity.) It was also great to see Eric Martell (@drmagoo on Twitter), who teaches at Millikan University, after meeting him at an AAPT meeting awhile back.  He made the heroic effort of meeting up for breakfast at 7am on a Sunday morning, although I must admit meeting at Courier Cafe made it worth the early wake up. (That’s a seriously good breakfast place if you need one in the area.)

The second week of the semester is about to close. There have been a couple of interesting questions from students that I wish I could spend more time on, such as investigating further double-slit versus single slit diffraction and better understanding the hows and whys of why bright fringes for one are equally spaced while they are not for the other, particularly how to demonstrate that to my students so they think about the physics more rather than defaulting to the geometry or equations. My thought is that if I had time to devote to writing a more extensive simulation that shows more wavefronts, etc., it would help them visualize it better. Most of what I seen somewhat caps off what is demonstrated a bit too early. But at least this year I’ve added into our classtime the use of the Ray Optics Demonstration Set. It has been, I think, very effective to demonstrate the behavior of the light rays more thoroughly before ever discussing the math that supports what is being observed. And let’s face it, “catching” the laser at the critical angle so that it bounces several times down a stick of the plastic is just plain fun to see.

April APS Recap

Last week I attended the April American Physical Society Meeting in Atlanta, GA. (For those unfamiliar with physics conferences, April APS [which can sometimes start in March, as it did this year, or even be held in February, as it was in 2010] covers particle physics, nuclear physics, and astrophysics. The March meeting covers just about everything else.)  The primary purpose of my attendance was to support my student, Zachary Kwong, who presented a poster on the research he performed with me last summer. The title of his poster was “Development and Characterization of NMR Measurements for Polymer Gel Dosimetry”. (And you can see some pictures here.) Zach is a great student, with a superb understanding of the value of the liberal arts, and I was pleased that he won an award for “An Outstanding Presentation of Undergraduate Research” from the Society of Physics Students. I want to say a hearty thank you to the APS for their strong undergraduate program. Zach received a thorough review and written feedback for his poster. He also enjoyed the special meetings and events just for undergraduate students.

Another purpose of my attendance was to get up to date in the latest findings in physics. I won’t bore my primarily non-particle/nuclear/astro physics readers with the details of the basic research talks I found interesting (although there were some pretty interesting discussions about the mass of the top quark). But a highlight that may be of interest to most people were the plenary talks given by the 2011 Nobel Prize winners Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess. They recounted the work that led to their Nobel prizes in a manner that I found interesting, because it highlighted the personal development of the research findings. Perlmutter discussed how flexibility in research expectations (especially as regards funding) was, in his view, absolutely necessary for allowing him and his colleagues to pursue their interests. I found Riess’ review of his lab notebook and email threads particularly illuminating, especially because I teach advanced lab and am always encouraging our students to attend carefully to the process of science, not just the end result.

April APS was also a great time of connecting with others. I was glad to meet up with Mary Kidd, a postdoc on the Majorana project who has just secured a faculty position and will be starting at Tennessee Tech this fall (she and I have a number of mutual friends and grew up not too far from each other in east Tennessee); Ko Sanders, a very talented mathematical physicist; and John Burk, a high school physics teacher who is a fellow member of Global Physics Department.

I’m not sure if I’ll attend APS in the future; I need to start attending AAPM and ISMRM meetings because they are closer to my immediate research interests, which will require me to start attending Winter AAPT instead of the summer one because of the conflict between AAPM and AAPT. But it was a great opportunity to be able to attend this one.

Show me the physics, not just the math

Have you heard about Global Physics Department? If not, allow me to tell you about it, because it’s one of the best professional development activities I’ve found. Global Physics Department (GPD) is a group of physics educators that meet in an online conference almost every Wednesday night at 8:30pm Central. (Here’s a link to the Posterous site that is a gateway for connecting to it.) High school and college physics teachers meet for about an hour to discuss matters related to teaching. Sometimes guest speakers discuss what they’re doing and attendees ask questions via chat. Other times, teachers submit videos of their teaching and get feedback from the group. Andy Rundquist from Hamline University is our gracious host and moderator.

I’m so glad to have discovered it this school year. I’ve learned a lot from the sessions I’ve been able to virtually attend. Here’s a case in point. Last semester, Andy invited participants to submit clips of teaching for feedback from members. Since a student of mine had some absences due to illness and I’d worked with my school’s media resources department to record a few classes, I had some recorded material ready to go.

I submitted the clips, which I gathered from a session from my intro course that happened to be on the ideal gas law. Fellow group members viewed them and then during one GPD meeting I received feedback from the group for about 15 minutes. I used a microphone to be able to respond to questions and comments that came either verbally from the moderator and a couple of other users, or from the users as a whole from chat within our online meeting system.

I was blown away by the feedback I got and the level of impact it’s made to my teaching. First, let’s consider what kind of usual feedback a professor like me gets. In my previous position, the only time any fellow faculty member viewed my courses was when a colleague of mine and I took the initiative to start a voluntary peer observation program. At my current institution, I had one observation my first semester and will presumably get another sometime this semester in time for me to complete a formal second-year review. But those are and will be fairly perfunctory, more of a way to check for satisfactory teaching performance rather than being geared towards real improvement. Of course, along the way I’ve gotten the standard end-of-semester formal evaluations from students and done my own informal mid-term evaluations. All of these have been somewhat helpful for avoiding terrible classroom habits but not terribly illuminating.

When my teaching session was observed via GPD by my peers at other institutions, a major piece of feedback came out: the need for me to emphasize physical meaning behind proportional thinking in equations. That statement doesn’t seem to really explain it very well. Here’s some context: in the teaching clip that was viewed, we looked at the ideal gas law equation and did some clicker questions that asked students to determine by what factor the temperature would increase if the pressure increased. The students did well, most of them getting the answer “right” – but I put “right” in quotation marks because there are different levels of right. GPD members suggested that maybe the students were primarily thinking through the math and not through the physics that causes the change in temperature.

This had a remarkable effect on how I think about teaching physics now. I shudder to think how often I have rewarded students for being able to do math (important in and of itself, of course) but not really tested if they were doing the physics – thinking through how the gas particles were changing with the increase in pressure, in this case.

Very soon I saw benefits from this feedback, which came at the end of last semester. The first week of classes this semester, I gave students this clicker question regarding some topics we had been covering on light:

Almost all the students got the answer right (it’s #4, by the way). In the past I would have told myself, “okay, they’re getting it, let’s move on.” But this time I pulled out one of my new favorite classroom tools, mini whiteboards, and asked them, “now, draw a figure of what’s going on and prove that that’s the right answer. Can you show via a drawing the real physics of the scenario?” And it was clear that the students had relied on the math to get the right clicker answer.

We ran out of time for that class period, but that was really a good thing because it left the students wondering about how to really get the right answer through physics. I got a lot of emails about light in general after class, which lead to some great discussions at the beginning of the next class period. This isn’t the only example from the first few weeks of classes this semester that has proven the benefit of participating in GPD. I’m looking forward to having class session from my physics of music class critiqued in the next few weeks.

GPD isn’t a replacement for institutional feedback or even conferencing, but it’s providing me with a way to improve my teaching that doesn’t come from the more formal professional development avenues. I’m excited to be a part of this community.

Have you benefited from GPD? Would such a system maybe be helpful in your own discipline? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Two items to check out today


  • I’ve been working with the editor of Books and Culture to launch a web-exclusive series entitled Science in Focus. Each week of a given month, a scientist or mathematician will give their insight into a given book (or article or film, even!) The series launched today and I hope you’ll check it out. Be on the lookout for posts each Wednesday. Coming soon, you’ll see reviews from Robert Talbert, Vanessa Fitsanakis, Andy Rundquist, Elise Crull, Jim Kakalios, Tim Slater, and several other fascinating folks. Each one has a different point of view on the book they’re reviewing. Together they illustrate the wonderful multi-faceted nature of science and math.
  • Global Physics Department starts back up tonight after a brief break for the holidays. (What is GPD? It’s a weekly online meeting of physics education folks, secondary and higher ed, who get together to talk about matters relating to our work. Personally, I’ve found it to be the best professional development series ever.) This evening, I’ll be talking about using Mendeley, particularly in why and I how I start talking to my students very early on about reference management. Andy Rundquist will also talk about using BiBTeX, which I’m excited to learn more about. GPD starts up at 9:30 Eastern, 8:30 Central most Wednesday nights.

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user mt 23]

A Scientist Walks into a THATCamp…

Last weekend I attended THATCamp Liberal Arts College (LAC) at St. Nobert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. You might immediately wonder, “why is this scientist going to THATCamp?” Here are a couple of reasons why I attended.

1. The chance to meet up with other Profs. Hacker. I’ve been a part of the blog for over a year and had yet to meet any of my fellow bloggers in real life. The opportunity to meet three of them was just too good to pass up.

2. To learn more about how the unconference model might apply to my interests of NMR/MRI and physics education research (PER). If the terms “THATCamp” and “unconference” are new to you, check out this post from THATCamp prime.

The first reason might not seem so strange, but why am I interested in the second? Because, just like general physics textbooks, the professional activities that surround the different physics worlds in which I’m involved are bloated. We have huge conferences which can cause attendees to incur great expense and in which a person can be completely passive and not really engage with a single person.  Publishing time frames can stretch on for half a year, even longer sometimes. It can be very difficult to get practical, timely information that helps you do your work.

Formal activities, such as conference attendance and traditional publishing, definitely have their place and value. I, for one, am extremely grateful for the relatively long, very respectful history of publishing in PER. No matter what field you are in, there is likely some helpful pedagogical information out there for you in PER. That community does a great job of carefully vetting studies and curating trustworthy results. In PER and science in general, it takes time for the scientific method and peer review to do its work. But while there is a time and place for formal activities, there is also a great need for swift, flexible communication of more casual information that can help a wide variety of people – and maybe even lead to greater formal innovation.

The ethos of THATCamp fits this need in some way. Put together a bunch of like-minded people who meet up at a low-stakes (and low-cost) situation and ask them to come up with their best ideas. Crowdsource those ideas and let the group weigh in on where, when, and how to discuss them. It’s chaotic, but it can work wonders.

How does this apply to my work? I currently have several questions swirling around in my head, ones that seem applicable to a THATCamp-type activity. How do I start to build a training program for undergraduate NMR research, one that takes into account that they’re physics majors, not chemistry majors, and they understandably need a lot of assistance with getting started? How do I start to build a body of information, practical tips, how to’s, etc.,  that can be passed on from a student that is with me now to the one that will work with me next summer? How do we, at our very small school, start to be good stewards of an upcoming big equipment install, when at larger ones the associated maintenance tasks would be taken on by full-time staff? What are some things I need to know about running an NMR machine that are likely known very well by folks at other places, especially regarding troubleshooting of the machines? What are best the best practices for scheduling time slots for its use? What kinds of physics demos are out there that I don’t know about? How do I find out about them without having to troll through a ton of literature? Who else out there feels a bit isolated and would like to cultivate a community of like-minded physicists at small schools, so that we can work together on potential grant proposals? How do we actually collaborate on these proposals?

These are just a few of the questions that swirl throughout my head every day. They are part of the work of being a faculty member at an student-focused undergraduate institution in which research is an expectation. I need information that is timely and for which I don’t have to wait for a formal publication (and truth be told, doesn’t really need a formal publication), and I need to learn from others what their questions are because they might apply to me as well.

Is a THATCamp an appropriate place for these discussions? Maybe. I think a successful THATCamp depends upon a number of factors, including a carefully articulated identity so that attendees comes with a shared, distinct purpose. I also think that attendees need to come with an overall positive perspective, so that the sessions don’t slam into a wall of complaint. (And kudos to the THATCamp LAC people, who did a wonderful job staying positive.) Finally, I think a major determining factor of THATCamp success is streams of communication before and after the conference. Twitter especially is a critical tool in getting conversations going and maintaining them. As far as I know, there is not that kind of strong, informal community out there yet in my interests, particularly in PER. I’m lucky to know a few fellow physics teachers on Twitter, but there could be a lot more.

So that’s my THATCamp LAC wrap-up. Many thanks to all the people I met at the unconference and didn’t seem to mind the intrusion of a science person.

LivePhoto Workshop

Last week I attended the LivePhoto Workshop, which was held at Vernier Software and Technology just outside of Portland, OR. Sometime between my TAing a general physics lab my first year of graduate school and starting my last faculty position video analysis became popular in general physics lab curricula, and I wanted to get up-to-date on the techniques.  Video analysis can be used effectively in physics labs and demos to monitor and measure motion and other physical phemonema. It’s a far cry from the scary sparking metal cylinder drop we used when I was an undergraduate to measure the acceleration due to gravity from marks on a strip of paper!

In the workshop, we covered the basics of good video set up and experimental practices, as well as the Logger Pro software from Vernier.  I learned that you can also download media from the web for use in Logger Pro. For the remainder of the week, the workshop participants divided up into groups and worked on projects.

In my project, I was interested in measuring the acceleration due to gravity of Old Spice Man in the swan dive of his latest commercial. This media campaign went viral the week of the workshop and I thought it would be a fun example of how students can take media of interest to them and measure physical quantities. As seen in the image at the top of this post, I tracked Old Spice Man’s position over time and made some measurements of his acceleration. My conclusion? You’ll have to wait on that! Actually, I’m still discussing the measurements with my favorite physicist (a.k.a. my husband) because the issue is surprisingly a bit tricky to interpret due to camera motion. But I’ll post an analysis soon.

During the course of the workshop it was also nice to see the Vernier headquarters. If you spend enough time in physics you get a certain nostalgia for the equipment you used in educational labs, so I’ve got a soft spot for Vernier.  The headquarters is a great building with lots of environmentally friendly features, such as the garden in the image below. The garden serves to filter water runoff from the building and to trap oil and other contaminants before the water gets to the storm sewer. It’s also a great landscape feature.

The Verniers themselves, the owners of the company, were really friendly to the LivePhoto workshop group and I enjoyed getting to meet them.

Many thanks to the NSF for supporting this workshop.

A new (academic) year

After a nice little summer break spent packing, moving, unpacking, traveling to Florida and New England, and resting (at least trying to), today marks my first official day working on campus at Wheaton. Technically, my contract started yesterday but Monday through Thursday of this week I was attending the AAPT New Faculty Workshop held at the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD.

One of the best features of this workshop is that all of the new faculty were really new-ish, in that most have had a year or two in their positions. For this reason, most of us were familiar with what teaching is really  like, day-in and day-out, and were ready to learn about some teaching strategies with a backbone of realism. We heard from some great speakers who are at the forefront of what is going on in physics education research.

I’ve been using clickers for a year, but this workshop gave me some great strategies on how to refine my technique. One pointer I’ll take away is the value of not letting the students know immediately the distribution of student answers. As Eric Mazur demonstrated, this can be done easily by using a notebook to cover up the projector. I was also intrigued by the talk given by Ed Prather. Prather advocates using cards instead of clickers and has some very specific requirements for their use in class, such as making sure the students hold their card below their chin and not in the air. He also uses a purposefully very difficult clicker question to motivate students to segue into a carefully chosen tutorial to assist in learning a topic.

Tim Slater gave a great talk on time and email management, and I’ll be incorporating his pointers in a future post on ProfHacker.

I very much appreciate the support of the AAPT, APS, AAS, and NSF in sponsoring the workshop, as well as my department for providing travel funds. All the attendees came away with lots of free materials – so many free books, in fact, that my luggage went over the weight requirement and I had to hastily remove some at check-in and carry them with me personally on the plane!