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Teaching Introductory Physics with Tales from the Subatomic Zoo

By Desirée Scorcia

While physicists and physics teachers across the country are searching for better ways to teach physics to high school students and college non-majors, Cindy Schwarz, a physics professor at Vassar College, has taken a novel approach to the problem. Schwarz teaches an introductory physics class at Vassar College called "A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo." The class is aimed at non-science majors, and requires no previous knowledge of physics.

That alone would not be unique. But as a final assignment in the course, Schwarz requires that her students write either a fictional story or poem about subatomic particles. Some years, they have also been given the options of writing about the failure of the SSC project, the search for and the discovery of the top quark, and the use of accelerators in medicine. But Schwarz says she is thrilled when students choose the more creative options.

Schwarz's unique approach appears to be working: her students are walking away from the class with a good understanding of particle physics and the policy behind it. And the proof is out there, at your local bookstore. This year, Schwarz compiled her favorites of these stories into a book called Tales From the Subatomic Zoo. "I had wanted to put them into a book to show to other people for quite a while," she said. "I think it's a really a nice way to show what you can do with liberal arts students who can take physics and use it in really interesting ways. I have over 300 stories and poems, and the students have continued to amaze me, delight me, really show what liberal arts students can do."

"I started the class because we don't have a science requirement at Vassar," said Schwarz, "and I was concerned that students could leave Vassar without taking any science at all. So I created this class, and gave it a snazzy name so the students would take it." Schwarz first taught the class in 1987 and has offered it for about ten of the past 15 years. In that time, she's taught approximately 400 students, from philosophy to French to art majors.

The key, Schwarz says, is to present physics in a way that is both interesting and relevant to their lives and education. "Why should we spend the money finding out how many quarks there are when there are starving kids and people dying of AIDS?" Schwarz says. "I focus on showing them what some of the practical sides of physics are, medical applications and such. It's important to show them that. If you're going to teach them about balls rolling down hills, they are not likely to be interested."

Schwarz also emphasizes science policy in her class. Two years ago, she decided to have her students hold a debate. She broke them into six groups —taxpayers, local residents, an environmental protection group, American physicists, foreign physicists, and representatives from a high tech research and development company — and asked them to debate the pros and cons of building a particle collider in a certain town. They had to research their topic, pick a side, and present their findings to a group outside of the physics department who played the role of congressional representatives. "The groups did everything from researching the entire town, to geological surveys of land and water tables, to looking up electrical and water consumption at CERN," Schwarz said. "The exercise really gave them a chance to look at the politics of high energy physics."

Schwarz says that most important of all, she tries to give her students an understanding of how physics discoveries happen. "I don't only show them all of the right things, but the wrong things too," she said. "We talk about why the model of the atom without neutrons didn't work and how it didn't hold up. I try hard to bring the blend between theory and experiments into the classroom, to convey the idea that we don't always know where we're going. I want them to get an idea of the scientific process, at least in one field."

For more information on Tales from the Subatomic Zoo, see Cindy Schwarz's Web site: www.smallworldbooks.net.



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