APS News

Northwest Section Holds First Meeting

Physicists from a wide range of sub fields in physics gathered in British Columbia, Canada, for the first meeting of the APS Northwest Section, held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, 21-22 May. More than 70 contributed abstracts were received, an especially strong showing for a fledgling geographical section, and 72 of the 189 registered participants were students. "This first meeting was very successful by most of the reasonable yardsticks for such meetings," said Eric Vogt of TRIUMF, one of the conference organizers, pointing to the strong attendance.

Because the meeting was a formative one, special efforts were made to bring together participants drawn from the various institutions spread over the northwest regions of Canada and the US, including the University of Washington, Oregon State University, University of Colorado/JILA, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, TRIUMF, the University of Calgary, Montana State university, and Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. To foster collegial interaction, the scientific sessions were supplemented by such social activities as a Thursday evening reception, Friday evening's salmon barbecue banquet, and a beer and pizza session on Saturday evening following the completion of the technical program.

In a Friday morning plenary lecture, Craig Hogan of the University of Washington discussed using supernovae to survey spacetime. Deep surveys of many kinds show that space and the matter within it, averaged over large volumes, are nearly uniform and uniformly expanding with time. Within this simple framework, however, there are still many possible universes with various spatial geometries and expansion histories. According to Hogan, exploding stars called Type Ia supernovae now give a brightness standard for measuring large distances with sufficient precision to begin to measure the history of the cosmic expansion and the large scale geometry of space. Two international teams have recently succeeded in obtaining high quality data on a few dozen supernovae at redshifts between 0.5 and 1 which indicate that the universe may be bigger and emptier than we expected, and likely to expand for much longer than it already has. The rate of expansion may even be accelerating, a sign that the universe may be driven apart by the repulsive gravity of an exotic new form of energy, such as Einstein's Cosmological Constant. Other plenary speakers covered such topics as Bose-Einstein condensates, spectral hole burning applications, quantum information and computation, electroweak physics, the growth of gallium selenium in silicon, nanophysics and the universal quantum of heat flow, neutrinos and muons.

Friday afternoon featured a special focus session on education. Janet Tate of Oregon State University described the recent restructuring of that institution's entire upper-division curriculum in an NSF-sponsored program called Paradigms in Physics. A series of nine "paradigms" — sequentially taught modules which emphasize a particular physical concept and which cross the usual sub-discipline boundaries — are followed by six deductive "capstones", which develop the individual sub-disciplines. "The approach shifts the framework of the upper-division curriculum more firmly to quantum mechanics from classical mechanics," said Tate.

According to Robert Gibbs of Eastern Washington University, from 1992-1997, Spokane Public Schools implemented an activity-based, elementary school science curriculum in its 35 elementary schools. The project was a collaborative effort between the school district and EWU, and its scope included 950 teachers, and 1600 science kits which are managed by a central facility. The majority of the kits were selected from the Science and Technology for Children and the Full Option Science System curricula. David R. Sokoloff of the University of Oregon in Eugene described how the results of physics education research and the availability of microcomputer-based tools have led to the development of student-oriented laboratory curricula like RealTime Physics. "One reason for the success of these and similar materials is that they encourage students to take an active part in their learning," he said. His talk focused on the use of Interactive Lecture Demonstrations to promote active learning in lecture and reported on recent results of studies on the effectiveness of this approach.

Finally, "Although most universities do a superb job of training graduate students in research, relatively few offer training to enable MS or PhD students to achieve the same level of mastery in teaching as a preparation for a career as a faculty member in a college or university," said Ken Krane of Oregon State University, which now offers a comprehensive program that prepares students for a variety of careers in physics teaching. For students interested in teaching at a two-year college, OSU offers an M.S. degree with a specialty in physics education along with a teaching intern program at a local community college. For PhD students, OSU offers a seminar that addresses a full range of pedagogical and methodological issues involved in physics teaching, an apprentice program that pairs each student with a faculty member of recognized teaching ability, and a capstone experience (following the completion of the PhD dissertation) as an instructor to fill sabbatical or other vacancies. According to Krane, "The impact of the program is measured by its extraordinarily high success at placing students in teaching jobs."

Another focus session on Saturday afternoon centered on industrial and applied physics. For example, a team of researchers from Montana State University in Bozeman has designed and tested a three-dimensional vibration isolation device using polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). The need for a low power, low current vibration damping system comes from space vehicles requiring low acceleration environments for sensitive experiments in microgravity with minimal resource utilization. The MSU system is built around twelve actuators arranged to actuate the isolation box in all six degrees of freedom. Actuators are made from silver-coated piezoelectric PVDF sheets.

Room and moderate-temperature oxygen sensor materials attract much attention owing to their wide prospective application in industry and household, according to Nickolay Golego of the University of British Columbia in Canada, who reported on the preparation and electronic characterization of polycrystalline thin-film titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for oxygen sensor applications in industry. He also discussed new preparation methods for polycrystalline phosphors, which have found wide application as an efficient blue primary in tricolor fluorescent lamps and plasma display panels. A drawback of the commercial powder process, however, is that high firing temperature (1600x C) is required. According to Golego, thin films may provide a viable alternative to powders. He and his collaborators have demonstrated for the first time a thin-film route to such preparation by spray pyrolysis, which is a convenient, low-temperature process applicable to many other phosphors.


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