Mining Your Research

Jonathan F. Reichert

I have been a regular attendee at the March APS meeting for more years than I care to count—most recently as a vendor of advanced laboratory equipment, not as a contributor to the invited or contributed sessions (although I once did that). I have witnessed over these many years the explosion of papers and posters presented which has always left me with the same two strong feelings. First of all, I am so glad that my research efforts were carried out many years ago, when the physics community was much smaller and I actually knew most of the people working in my field. I cannot imagine how today's scientist deals with a meeting which has 30 simultaneous sessions every day for five days, but I certainly admire the outburst of creative research.

However, I often find myself wondering what recently discovered physics phenomena could also be observed in an undergraduate advanced physics laboratory? Surely something being discussed in one or two of the papers being presented at a meeting could become a new advanced lab experiment, possibly even a new "classic." Do any of the contributing physicists ever think about that possibility? Do they ever ask themselves that question? Do they think about ways to simplify, modify or re-engineer an experiment, which led to their discovery so that it might be accessible to the undergraduate physics major? Does the idea of any kind of "crossover" to the teaching lab ever enter their minds?

After WWII, there was an enormous surge in the development of new and modern advanced laboratory experiments in this country, creating some of the most innovative, challenging, and exciting instructional laboratories in the world. That surge, led by faculty such as Robert Pound at Harvard, lasted about 25 years. In the last 15–20 years, it has died off. How old are the experiments we offer our students in the advanced lab? Who last took the time to bring experiments from the research lab into the teaching lab? I believe that those cutting edge undergraduate labs helped the United States become strong in experimental physics very quickly. Now, while other countries are building world-class facilities, we are showing signs of falling behind. Physics is still an experimental science! This generation of experimental physicists has an obligation to maintain our excellence, even our pre-eminence in this basic science.

No, the sky is not falling "Chicken Little," but it is time for the physics community to pay attention to these concerns. What is the last new advanced lab experiment you can think of that has come from new research and has now become a standard in the teaching lab? There is always concern about technological transfer from the research lab to industrial applications and new products, but hardly a peep about transfer to experimental pedagogy. That must change! I have a proposal to help encourage, even possibly enhance, that transfer.

Every year at the March, and possibly the April APS meeting, the FEd should sponsor an invited/contributed session (or sessions) called "Mining Your Research for New Advanced Lab Experiments." Faculty, and even industrial physicists, should be invited to submit papers that:

  1. Propose experiments that could be transferred from the research lab to the teaching lab.
  2. Explain experiments they have already in place at their own institutions that were inspired by current research.
  3. Discuss the equipment and facilities needed to bring these new research experiments into the teaching lab.
  4. Explain the kind of special samples needed for these new experiments and the possibility of their labs supplying them to other schools.
  5. Discuss possible collaborations with colleagues and industry to facilitate bringing new experiments into the curriculum.

Such a session might include both invited and contributed papers. I would suggest that the time allotted for contributed papers be double that of a standard talk. For real communication about experimental pedagogy to take place, the presenter needs to go into the details of instrumentation and student response as well as the basic science. I don't suspect there will be a flood of participants, so time constraints should not be a problem. If we can find the small but dedicated minority willing to undertake this challenge, we need to give them both exposure and a realistic chance to convince others of the worth of these new experiments.

I want to share one of several examples of such a "transfer" that our company has participated in. Dr.  Kenneth Libbrecht of Caltech approached us several years ago with an apparatus and a set of experiments that he had developed for a junior level optics lab at Caltech. Stabilized diode lasers had become an important research tool and he had developed his own homemade version with a set of wonderful experiments. At that time, we had no in-house expert in optics, but with Dr. Libbrecht's help, we were confident we could develop a robust and rugged teaching apparatus. The photograph shows Dr. Libbrecht's students using the apparatus, which resulted from that collaboration. And now, one might say the "transfer" has passed from Caltech to TeachSpin to seventy-five colleges and universities all over the world.

In this case, the transfer had an intermediate step of going through a commercial development. Certainly, that won't be necessary all the time. What is important is the transfer—from research lab to teaching lab. For that to happen, the research community must be conscious of the ongoing need. They must at least think about it some of the time. TeachSpin wants to support this effort and to encourage professional recognition for those who make this a part of their life as physicists. We are willing, in fact eager, to fund an APS prize, which recognizes excellence in the development of new advanced laboratory experiments. We propose that the FEd provide judges for the award. This award would be given every year in which the judges agree that a worthy candidate had made a recent contribution to the advanced teaching laboratory. The awardee would present an invited talk at the special session of the March (or April) meeting in addition to being presented with a cash honorarium. The APS awards some 45 prizes, none of which recognize what some of us would call the most difficult and time-consuming part of teaching: lab development.

Maybe these few steps will help generate new activity within the physics community, activity that focuses on advanced experimental instruction. It might even encourage the NSF to put more resources into this part of their educational program. It is certainly in the interest of industry, as well as academia, to have students well trained in experimental physics, with real hands-on experience. I even hope that some of the major corporations would come forward with their own support for these efforts. It is certainly in their self-interest.

Let's begin again!

Caltech Students
Caltech students using the “Diode Laser Spectroscopy” apparatus in their advanced laboratory

Jonathan Reichert is President of TeachSpin, Inc. in Buffalo, NY, which he began in 1992.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.