APS News

Physicists, Educators, Share Experiences at HS Teacher's Day

Larry Woolf
Instructor Larry Woolf, from General Atomic, was one of many who presented workshops at Teacher's Day. Photo by Edward Lee
Isolation can be a serious problem for many high school physics teachers: isolation from their fellow physics teachers, from current research discoveries and physics applications, and from new developments in education-related research and new instructional materials.

According to Ted Schultz of the APS Education and Outreach Department, helping high school physics teachers to break through this isolation was the primary purpose for the High School Teacher's Days held at both the March and April meetings of the APS.

At the March meeting, sixty-one high school physics teachers from the Twin Cities region convened at the Minneapolis Hilton to hear presentations on cutting-edge physics research, attend hands-on workshops on ways of teaching physics, and mingle during a buffet breakfast and lunch with research physicists and science educators to share their experiences.

The presentations on cutting-edge research centered on condensed matter physics, in keeping with the major focus of the APS March Meeting. Moungi Bawendi of MIT's Chemistry Department spoke on fluorescent quantum dots and their potential applications, while Princeton University's Paul Chaikin reported on his studies of the packing of hard spheres, using lasers, cleverly selected polymers, and the Space Shuttle as a venue for some of the experiments. After Chaikin's talk, the visiting high school teachers had the opportunity for hands-on activities and to take samples of these spheres back to their classrooms for further investigations.

Two of the hands-on workshops were based on teaching materials developed by Larry Woolf, a condensed matter experimentalist at General Atomics in San Diego, CA. One on electrical resistivity and resistance used only a graphite pencil, a piezoelectric spark generator, and a piece of paper; and one on color used color strips, wheels, cubes, and diagrams. The third workshop was presented by Ken Heller, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, together with his wife, Pat Heller, associate professor at UM's College of Education and Human Development, and Laura McCullough, a graduate student in the same department. They brought nine desktop computer systems so participants could try out the Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) software, produced in a project co-directed by Pat Heller. This software enables students to learn introductory physics by working through detailed simulations of phenomena.

A fourth hands-on workshop was presented by Russell Hobbie, professor emeritus in UM's physics department and an expert in medical applications of physics, John Koser, an adjunct lecturer in the physics department at the University of St. Thomas, and Terry Goerke, a local high school physics teacher. They involved participants in several activities from the Medicine unit of Active Physics, which all three had developed.

As successful as the event proved to be on its own, Schultz and co-worker Ed Lee in the Education and Outreach Department are dedicated to ensuring that such days have a more lasting effect on high school teachers. To that end, they met with six of the participating teachers who had expressed interest in helping achieve this goal - preferably through the formation of a strong local alliance between high-school and college-level physics teachers in the Twin Cities region. The APS created more than 100 such alliances around the country several years ago through a separate NSF supported program. Schultz said the hope is that the alliance in the Twin Cities region would meet periodically for mini Teacher's Days, including a physics talk by a research physicist in the region and a teaching workshop.

The APS April meeting in Long Beach, CA, featured Michael Turner, chairman of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, who gave a presentation on dark matter and dark energy. Chris McCarthy, a graduate student at UCLA and a former member of the Butler-Marcy collaboration, reported on extra-solar planets - two such planets have only recently been discovered, with strong prospects for future discoveries.

In addition, Larry Woolf was on hand in the wake of his success in Minneapolis with his hands-on workshops on resistivity and color, along with Fred Goldberg, a well-known physicist and science educator from San Diego State University, who presented the CPU program, which was also on the agenda at the Teacher's Day in Minneapolis. CPU is the product of a long-term project that Goldberg co-directs with Pat Heller. Ron Stevens of UCLA Medical School's Department of Microbiology and Immunology presented a fourth workshop in which participating teachers had the opportunity to work with novel Web-based computer software for testing and analyzing the way students solve problems. "We expect that many of these teachers will wish to experiment with these programs in their classrooms and that some will develop software specific to problem solving in various areas of physics," said Schultz.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette