Physical Review Focus Fans Include Teachers and Undergrads
By Pamela Zerbinos
In March of 1998, APS launched a website called Physical Review Focus in hopes of facilitating communication between physicists of different disciplines and increasing their awareness of research outside their specific field. Although it still serves this function as its primary goal, its scope has broadened significantly to encompass the education of undergraduates and even high-school students.
The website, which is updated once or twice a week, explains in simple language selected research articles recently published in the APS journals Physical Review and Physical Review Letters. The papers appearing on the site are usually chosen for their educational value or interest to nonspecialists, rather than simply for their scientific merit. Although recent statistics are not available, the editor, David Ehrenstein, says that in late 2002 the home page got upwards of 20,000 hits per month. The accompanying e-mail list, which informs readers of the latest Focus stories, currently has around 7,600 subscribers from over 70 countries.
Because physicists often don't follow closely what's going on outside their chosen field, Ehrenstein found that lowering the bar enough for all physicists to understand a story was not far from writing for undergraduate physics students, an audience he wanted to reach out to.
"I based it to a large extent on my own experience as an undergraduate," said Ehrenstein, who majored in physics at Oberlin College before going on to get his PhD. "These are people who are interested in current physics research, but they can't read the journals. There's not much out there for them. They can read something like Discover Magazine, but they often want more in-depth information."
Ehrenstein's experience is echoed by physics educators from around the globe, who have turned to Focus to help fill the gap.
Pete Markowitz, who teaches physics at Florida International University, uses the material in his modern physics course, where "the students are mostly physics majors and they have a curiosity about what is happening in 'their' field. Modern physics, especially the lab, is the first chance the students get to explore what physics is currently about. I find Physical Review Focus to be unique in that it provides current research and is in a simple format suitable for any interested reader."
Focus' emphasis on current research is quite important to many of its readers. Physics students from schools as varied as Moscow State University, Carleton College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) have professors who use Focus articles to keep them abreast of current research. SAIC students enrolled in Elizabeth Freeland's modern physics course, for example, are required to do reports on Focus articles and are encouraged to check out the Focus archives for a final report topic.
Other physics educators use the site in slightly different ways. Like Freeland, Nelson Vanegas, at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, asks his introductory students to summarize Focus articles and present them to the class.
"The idea," Vanegas said, "is to make them aware of where the frontier in physics is and to let them know the names of universities, centers and scientists active today so they can take it as a goal to get there."
Marjorie Olmstead, who teaches at the University of Washington, also uses the site in her intro course. "I look through the last six to eight months of Focus articles and link to those relevant to the quarter," she said. "I use it to emphasize that even though most of what they are learning has been known for over a century, there is still modern research based upon it and pushing it forward."
College professors are not the only educators using Focus in their classrooms; the site is also used by high school teachers for similar reasons. Daniel Kutsko, who teaches physics at Jersey Village High School in Houston, Texas, says he uses Focus articles "to highlight the reality that what we study in class is going on right now, and physics is changing as we speak. Additionally, I have used these articles to engender in high school students the confidence that-on their own, with no help from me-they can actually read and understand what's happening in the physics community."
Mary Brake, who teaches at Mercy High School in Farmington, Michigan, says she uses Focus to keep ahead of her students, who can bring in physics articles for extra credit and explain to the class what the article is about.
"They often bring in articles about the latest findings in physics," Brake said, "and the reason I know this is because I have usually just read PRF. I have found that they do not usually understand the articles and I end up trying to explain the new discoveries. I am glad they're interested, but I wish they would bring in articles they could explain without my help. But PRF keeps me up-to-date and one step ahead of my students."
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