FEd November 1994 Newsletter - BROWSING THROUGH THE JOURNALS

November 1994



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Thomas Rossing

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 Progress report.

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.


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

[Click here to send an email letter to the editors--kbl]