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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

On the Shoulders of…

Monday, April 14th, 2014

My first physics class wasn’t really a class at all. One of my 8th grade teachers noticed me carrying a copy of Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, and invited me to join a free-form book discussion group on physics and math that he was holding with a few older students. His name was Art — and we called him by his first name because I was attending, for want of a concise term that’s more precise, a “hippie” school. It had written evaluations instead of grades and as few tests as possible; it spent class time on student governance; and teachers could spend time on things like, well, discussing books with a few students without worrying about whether it was in the curriculum or on the tests. Art, who sadly passed some years ago, was perhaps best known for organizing the student cafe and its end-of-year trip, but he gave me a really great opportunity. I don’t remember learning anything too specific about physics from the book, or from the discussion group, but I remember being inspired by how wonderful and crazy the universe is.

My second physics class was combined physics and math, with Dan and Lewis. The idea was to put both subjects in context, and we spent a lot of time on working through how to approach problems that we didn’t know an equation for. The price of this was less time to learn the full breadth subjects; I didn’t really learn any electromagnetism in high school, for example.

When I switched to a new high school in 11th grade, the pace changed. There were a lot more things to learn, and a lot more tests. I memorized elements and compounds and reactions for chemistry. I learned calculus and studied a bit more physics on the side. In college, where the physics classes were broad and in depth at the same time, I needed to learn things fast and solve tricky problems too. By now, of course, I’ve learned all the physics I need to know — which is largely knowing who to ask or which books to look in for the things I need but don’t remember.

There are a lot of ways to run schools and to run classes. I really value knowledge, and I think it’s crucial in certain parts of your education to really buckle down and learn the facts and details. I’ve also seen the tremendous worth of taking the time to think about how you solve problems and why they’re interesting to solve in the first place. I’m not a high school teacher, so I don’t think I can tell the professionals how to balance all of those goods, which do sometimes conflict. What I’m sure of, though, is that enthusiasm, attention, and hard work from teachers is a key to success no matter what is being taught. The success of every physicist you will ever see on Quantum Diaries is built on the shoulders of the many people who took the time to teach and inspire them when they were young.


Back to school!

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

It’s the first week of spring classes at UNL, even if it doesn’t look much like spring. (Temperatures will break the freezing mark tomorrow for the first time in about three weeks.) Today was the first day of the course I’m teaching this semester — introduction to particle physics at the graduate level. Actually, this “introduction” to the field is the only graduate-level course that we offer in the subject (we’re a small program), so I consider it a great privilege to be teaching it, and it is certainly a great responsibility, as for many of the students this will be the last course they ever take on this topic.

This is my second time teaching the class, and I must admit that I learned a lot of physics on my first time around, two years ago. Yes, I took a course like this as a graduate student, but the way to really learn something is to be prepared to teach it. I have a much greater appreciation for the successes of our models, and the constraints that all the existing data place on the possible extensions to those models.

It’s a lot easier to teach a course for the second time than for the first time, since you’ve done the work to re-learn all the material relatively recently, and you have a good idea about how you want to structure the course, etc. But I actually wish it weren’t so easy this time! When I last taught the class, in Spring 2008, the LHC was scheduled to start up that fall, and we would have had a year’s worth of data under our belts at this point. Perhaps it would have been naive to expect that we could have made any significant discoveries by now, but at the very least we would have started mapping out the physics of the next energy scale. I was hoping that I might have to significantly change the course for 2010 in light of what we were learning from the LHC!

But it wasn’t to be. However, by the end of the semester in early May, we will have collected a good amount of collision data at 7 TeV, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to share some of that experience with the students in the class. And I am expecting that I’ll be teaching this course again in Spring 2012 — let’s hope that I have a lot of prep work to do then!


The Usual Tag Team

Friday, June 13th, 2008

This always seem to happen when I return from trips to the United States. After a week or two of cramming in all the activities I possibly can, and eating all the wonderful (and affordable!) Americanized ethnic food that I miss when I’m in Switzerland, and being exposed to microbes from another continent, I generally return to Geneva both sick and jet lagged. With “only” six hours time difference to get over, rather than the usual nine from California, I think I would have slept fairly normal hours last night—except that I had a terrible headache that made it hard to get to sleep, and an even worse cough that would wake me up 20 minutes later every time I did.

Needless to say, I am not at work today, although I am making meetings for Monday, consulting on code that I wrote that has been passed on to others, and (obviously) blogging. I need rest, but I also need to remind my body when daytime is, or the jet lag will take over beating me up again.

On a completely different note, my friend Joel back in Berkeley has written a guest post on Cosmic Variance about graduate school, teaching, and the Compass Project. The Compass project is a program at UC Berkeley, run by graduate students, “which supports excellence in science education, especially for women and minorities.” I encourage you to go over and take a look, either to read my arguments with him in the comments about how much graduate programs should emphasize teaching or (better still) to learn about Compass. They’re small, new, and could use more support for the good work they’re doing.


Professors unbound!

Monday, May 5th, 2008

The sun sets later and later, the temperatures are getting warmer, and the plants in the yard are starting to grow. Rapidly. (We’re already losing control of the yard, which has me worried. Don’t get me started — this is supposed to be about particle physics.) But most importantly, we are almost done with the school year. This is finals week here, and I give my final on Friday. I’ve been teaching the graduate-level particle physics course this term, and while I have enjoyed it (and learned and re-learned a lot), it’s also been a lot of work. But by early next week, I will be done with my teaching duties until August, which means that I’ll only be holding down one job instead of two. At long last, more time to focus on particle physics! There are a lot of things I want to be working on this summer — we’re trying to get new equipment running in our silicon-pixel lab, and we need to be getting our act together on how exactly we are going to look at the LHC data when they arrive this summer. But my concern at the moment needs to be the big computing exercise that we’re running in May, the Combined Computing Readiness Challenge. I suppose that I’ll write about CMS’s distributed computing system in pieces over many postings (if nothing else so you don’t have to read it all in one go), but let’s say at the outset that the CMS data processing is going to be taking place at computing centers spread around the world. Making that function is going to take a lot of technical work and also a lot of operational focus. Many of the computing sites serve more than one LHC experiment. Thus, not only do we want to exercise the CMS computing system at full scale in advance of LHC startup, we want to exercise the systems of the three other experiments at the same time — the “combined” in the name of the challenge. Since I look after the Tier-2 sites in US CMS (and to some extent CMS as a whole), I’m focused on what those sites have to do in the challenge. We have to transfer datasets from Tier-1 sites, and show that we can host jobs that are submitted to run on these datasets. Right now we’re trying to push a few datasets through the network to the sites in preparation for job submission this week. The results have been so-so so far; with the May Day holiday in Europe, some Tier-1 sites are not fully up and running (grumble grumble). But I’m hoping that we can get that fixed up early in the week, and push forward. I’ll let you know how it’s going in my next post.


It works for Indy…

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

You know, a prolonged absence sparks interest, just like Indiana Jones. Right?

Things have been happening though. We’re actually starting to test our piece of the puzzle, the CMS Tracker. It has 10 million channels from which we get information about what charged particles come out of the collisions, and we’ve now completely hooked up the 78 km of power cables, 1000 km of optical fibers, and the last 1.4 km of copper pipe (in 3.5 m pieces) to be able to start to run the detector. My students Phil Harris and Pieter Everaerts are in the thick of things, and have embarked on the Checkout procedure – we’ve only looked at about 3% of our detector since its 23 km ride on the truck to the experiment, but so far, things look quite good. Really right now we’re learning more about how to test it out then actually learning about testing it out, but “production mode” of checkout is around the corner, and none too soon.

Other things have been going on too. Mostly I am frantically trying to reteach myself particle physics before teaching it to my students. I think typically in physics one has to go over things a few times, increasing the detail each time, before you really get a grasp on how the theories all work. I tend to have “premature senior moments” when I know that something is true, but cannot quite remember how one arrives at that true statement. And we physicists are pretty good skeptics-we don’t believe something until it has been demonstrated to us.

Another really fun activity I got to do last Month was be a “speaker” in a Science Cafe. This is an event organized by the folks at WGBH’s NOVA ScienceNow and Sigma Chi, the scientific research society, where some scientist agrees to meet a bunch of regular people who are interested in science at a bar somewhere and just talk about the topic at hand, over a beer or two. No powerpoint, no real preparation, just an off the cuff introduction to what I do and why, and then Q&A and discussion. It was very relaxed, and there was an appointed moderator there to make sure I didn’t wander into too much jargon or technical description that would just lose the general well informed public. I had a blast, and think it was well received by the thirty or so people in attendance – and the bar which was our gratis host was happy too, since those thirty people did in fact have some food and drink.

The discussion did tend to revolve around Politics and Science, and I tried hard not to use my bully pulpit to express my own political views. The hardest question I think I had was “I believe in the science for science’s sake argument, and I believe is all the spinoffs like magnets, the web, Bill Foster’s (excuse me, Congressman Foster’s!) theatre company, my friend (and former Rochester HEP postdoc) Tony Vaicuilis’s wanting to use HEP Monte Carlo to test data mining algorithms in conjuction with research for identity protection (oh hadn’t mentioned that one yet, huh? New things pop up all the time), etc, but what effect will your research have directly – if we find a Higgs Boson, then what?”. I have to admit that I don’t have in my back pocket a “killer app” to implement as soon as we find the Higgs, but I think that misses the point of basic research. Maybe we can turn our discoveries into real applications 50 years from now – that is the time scale for these things to happen, otherwise it isn’t basic research. The applications I could dream up sound like science fiction, but then again, so did almost all the implements we use every day, 50 years ago. You think the guys who built ENIAC had any idea how their work would change the world? My favorite crazy ideas include controlling a Higgs field to manipulate the mass of the electron, or making supersymmetric atoms – a whole new dimension in chemistry. Right now, these are totally ludicrous, but who knows what can happen when you turn a corner on the understanding of the universe. I do know that if we don’t do the basic research now, we certainly won’t get the 50 year payoff, whatever that may be.