Monday, June 25, 2012

Workshop for New Physics & Astronomy Faculty - June 25-28 2012

The Workshop for New Physics and Astronomy Faculty gets under way this week at the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD. Now in its eleventh year, the Workshop was started by the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) , in cooperation with the American Association for Physics Teachers (AAPT), responding to the sad reality that beginning faculty often neglect teaching duties in the quest to establish their research credentials, and that this neglect is most likely to occur at research-intensive universities which also graduate the largest number of physics undergraduates, and often translates in to significant attrition in physics enrolment levels. The workshop is now funded by the National Science Foundation.

On the first day, the workshop proper gets going with Eric Mazur and Angelica Natera of Harvard University on Peer Instruction. A method of learner-centered teaching, with peer-originated interactive real-time feedback that is especially suited to large classes of undergraduates, Peer Instruction has demonstrated increased measurable learning outcomes in introductory physics both in large and in small institutional contexts. On the second day, several sessions on Learner-centered teaching, Digital Libraries, and Lecture tutorials, and my old friend and Hopkins Physics co-alum Andy Gavrin of Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis talks on "How to Get Your Students to Prepare for Every Class." The third day includes a variety of sessions: on Upper level physics, on using Phys-lets (Java applets on physics concepts), and problem solving, etc.

All in all, the beginning physics faculty in attendance, as well as the conference facilitators and lecturers should have an interesting, educational (in all senses) and fun time.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Four Ways of Teaching General Relativity to Undergraduates

As someone who had cracked open his father's copy of The Principle of Relativity (which contained Einstein's original paper on General Relativity) at age 13, presented an undergraduate paper on White Holes in Astrophysics as a freshman at age 17, opened Weinberg's classic tome at age 18, and delivered a graduate-level seminar on the Binary Pulsar 1913+16 at age 20, I read the recent article by Professors Nelson Christensen and Thomas Moore on teaching General Relativity to Undergrads with a great deal of interest. They present four pedagogical approaches to teaching undergrads, and to quote from their article, the four approaches are:
  • The adjusted math-first approach.
  • The calculus-only approach.
  •  The physics-first approach.
  •  The intertwined + active-learning approach
When I was an undergrad, there was a severe paucity of  books on General Relativity directed at an undergraduate audience. The traditional textbook was Weinberg's Gravitation and Cosmology, and one had to wait for a full 3-year sequence in mathematical physics including tensors and elements of differential geometry, before one got to the course which taught it. Needless to say, for the interested and motivated student, this was rather a long time to wait! Today, textbooks such as Bernard Schutz's A First Course in General Relativity, and others cited by Christensen and Moore go a long way towards filling this gap, and also add much more material on recent developments such as gravitational wave detection and gravitational lensing of optical images, which adds considerably to their appeal.

Undergraduate interest in general relativity today comes not only from cosmology but also topics such as the Global Positioning System (GPS). I have created a blog widget on the left contains links to presentations and resources n teaching undergraduates general relativity organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers, that I have found extremely interesting and useful.