BROWSING THROUGH THE JOURNALS
Over the years, few people have contributed as much to physics education
as Albert Bartlett. Readers of The Physics Teacher regularly use snippets
from his "et cetera..." column in their classes, and his celebrated
lecture on exponential growth has fascinated well over 1000 audiences.
His paper "Physics from the News: Curve Fitting" in the May issue of
The Physics Teacher deserves careful reading. Al carefully analyzes
the Transportation Department estimate that a single 40,000-kg truck
does as much damage to an interstate highway as 9600 cars to illustrate
how "real world" physics problems can be incorporated into our physics
teaching. Another recent paper by Bartlett and Bruce Mechtly, "Graphical
representations of Fraunhofer interference and diffraction" [American
Journal of Physics 62, 501-510 (1994)], is also highly recommended.
Also in the May issue of The Physics Teacher is an interesting explanation
of "The Quartz Watch with Digital Readout," by Richard Crane. Since
1983, Crane's articles on "How Things Work" have been a regular feature
in The Physics Teacher. [A book of reprints of these articles from
1983 to 1991 is available from AAPT]. The first part of the digital
watch is identical to that of the analog watch described earlier (Phys.
Teach. 31, 501 (Nov. 1993)): a quartz tuning fork with a train of 15
divide-by-two's to bring the fork's 32,768-Hz frequency down to 1 Hz.
The reduction from 1 Hz down to the pulse that advances the month requires
21 more divisions by 2.
"Scottish teaching under the microscope" is the title of a report
in the August issue of Physics World. A recent assessment of Scotland's
universities looked at such things as the aims of the curricula being
taught and how they are designed and reviewed: are students asked for
feedback and is industry asked to comment on the employability of graduates?
General teaching and learning environments were examined, as well as
staff resources and development opportunities. On the whole, according
to the report, Scotland's ten universities got good marks.
At a recent commencement, Purdue University awarded doctorates in
both physics and chemistry to Harry T. Kloor, according to the Aug.
22 issue of Chemical and Engineering News. Kloor's dissertations, both
theoretical, dealt with unrelated topics. His research in chemistry
focused on theoretical analysis of the Verwey transition in magnetite,
while his thesis was related to the search for a fifth fundamental
force in nature. Research has indicated that Kloor is the first person
to earn simultaneous doctorates in the U.S.
A book review of La vie a fil tendu by Georges Charpak in Nature
(18 Aug. 1994) tells us that "scientists'lives are only rarely worth
telling." Although I strongly disagree with this statement, I was happy
to read a review of Charpak's autobiographical book and to gain some
insight into the life of this Nobel laureate whose work is widely acclaimed
by his colleagues but little known outside the particle-physics community.
Charpak grew up in the Polish Ukraine, emigrated to Palestine, and
subsequently to France. There he joined a resistance group, was imprisoned
at Dachau, but eventually came to study under Fridiric Joliot. Charpak's
scientific career was mostly centered at CERN, where he distinguished
himself as an inventor and developer of particle detectors.
The declining popularity of physics, reflected in declining enrollments
in physics courses (especially by humanities students) is a world-wide
phenomenon. In England and Wales, according to an editorial in the
July issue of Physics Education, the number taking A-level physics
fell by 20% from 1987 to 1993. The same issue carries an article "Bucking
the trend"suggests a number of ideas for stimulating interest in physics.
These ideas range from lining the corridors with photographs and other
exhibits to students' achievements to visiting science museums. In
addition to pointing out the similarities in problems, reading physics
education journals from other countries points out cultural differences.
The reviewer of an instructional videotape liked the images but "found
the American commentary to be the weakest element"; users are advised
to turn off the sound and provide their own commentary.
"The fundamental change that has led to the breakthroughs in cognitive
studies in the past few decades has been a new willingness to model
what is happening in the mind in terms of inferred structures," Edward
Redish reminds us in an interesting paper on "Implications of cognitive
studies for teaching physics" in the September issue of American Journal
of Physics. Redish formulates 4 important principles pertaining to
mental patterns or models: 1. People tend to organize their experiences
and observations into patterns or mental models (the construction principle);
2. It is reasonably easy to learn something that matches or extends
an existing mental model (the assimilation principle); 3. It is very
difficult to change an established experimental model substantially
(the accommodation principle); 4. Since each individual constructs
his or her own mental ecology, different students have different metal
models for physical phenomena and different mental models for learning
(the individuality principle).
Students in elementary and secondary schools are pulling their math
and science test scores out of the slump that hit in the mid-1970s,
according to a news note in the August 26 issue of Science. Students
in all the ages studied, 9, 13, and 17, made gains in average proficiency
between 1982 and 1992, bringing them just about where they were in
the early 1970s, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational
Many profitable high-tech companies depend on physics and engineering
skills for their success, Marianne Hamm reminds us in an article "Life
Beyond Research" in the Spring 1994 issue of the CSWP Gazette (published
by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics). Hamm, who
is the chief operations officer of an accelerator company, suggests
four ways that physics graduate students can prepare themselves to
someday start their own company: 1. Broaden your background and experience
as much as possible; 2. Be flexible; if you are prepared to do only
one type of research, you will not be able to start your own business;
3. Don't let your graduate school interests focus only on physics;
4. Don't be afraid to take a calculated risk.
WE WANT YOUR LETTERS!!
My dictionary defines forum as a "public meeting with open discussion," and
that is exactly what the Forum on Education is intended to be: a forum
for open discussion on physics education. A glance at any issue of
our newsletter, however, will give the impression that our readers
don't have very many new (or old) ideas about physics education that
they are willing to share with others. Where are the letters from our
readers? If the rotating editorship of the newsletter has confused
you about where to send your letters, let me assure you that a letter
sent to any of the editors will get prompt attention and will probably
be published in the next scheduled newsletter unless you request a
certain issue. We'll continue to request articles and editorials from
recognized leaders in physics education, but the heart of the Forum
should be lively discussion by our readers!
-- Tom Rossing
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