Browsing the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

  • "The Large Hadron Collider runs on woman power" is the title of an article in the May issue of CERN Courier which presents brief interviews with nine physicists and engineers working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). They gave varying answers to the question of whether they considered themselves to be at a disadvantage working in a field dominated by men, but most of them did not. Several of the women had children ranging in age from 2 to 18, which presented a challenge to balance their profession with their family.

  • There’s no real difference between the scores of US boys and girls on common math tests, according to a paper in the July 25 issue of Science. A study 20 years ago showed a "trivial" gap in math test scores between boys and girls in elementary and middle school, but it did suggest that boys were better at solving more complex problems by the time they got to high school. Now, even that small gap appears to have disappeared. Among the highest scorers, white boys outnumbered white girls about 2:1, but among Asians, however, that result was nearly reversed, which suggests that cultural and social factors, not gender alone, influence how well students perform on tests. Boys do outperform girls on the mathematics section of the SAT test, but that may be due to the fact that more girls than boys take the SAT.

    The most disturbing finding is that neither boys or girls get many tough math questions on state tests now required to measure a school district’s progress under the No Child Left Behind law. The authors worry this means that teachers may start dropping harder math from their curricula because more teachers are gearing their instruction to the tests.

  • "UK Education Reform: Too Much of a Good Thing?" is the title of a news item in the 12 September issue of Science. For more than a decade, the U.K. government has tweaked and revamped high school curricula and examination system to stop a worrying slide in the number of children who study science and mathematics in their last 4 years at school. Last week, the Royal Society issued a report that says the government implementation of science education reform is unscientific. The changes have come so fast, one after another, that it’s impossible to know whether anything has worked or just added to the problem, the report says. The report concludes that the political pressure to deliver results before a government faces the next election is not compatible with methodical reform. Meanwhile the dwindling science pipeline feed U.K. universities has a noticeable impact: 22 physics departments have closed since 1997.

  • Combining teaching with research is always tricky, particularly if one is aiming for tenure. An article in the 6 September issue of New Scientist includes some hints for how to get ahead. One way is to avoid growing your lab too large in the early years. "Graduate students are hard to train. For many years, the best hands you’ll have to do the experiments are your won." Don’t discount the need to write and present your work well. If you want to stay on the tenure track but want a more even distribution of research and teaching, consider a position at a small college where teaching is considered more heavily in tenure decisions. Once tenured, avoid shifting too much of your workload into administrative or service roles.

  • Physics is generally perceived to be a difficult subject, so the use of demonstrations to promote understanding as well as generate student interest among students is valuable. Three practical demonstration experiments from the New Zealand Institute of Physics conference are described in the July issue of Physics Education. One has to do with diffraction at parallel grooves left on a sheet of plastic by a coarse sheet of sandpaper. The second illustrates how internal resistance generates heat in a battery. The third is a demonstration of the Leidenfrost effect by water droplets on a hot metal plate.

  • Despite ever-rising college costs a $4.5 billion federal aid program to lure students into science is vastly undersubscribed, according to a note in the 15 August issue of Science.

    The Department of Education is spending money at only half the rate Congress envisioned in 2006 when it created the 5-year National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) and the Academic Competitiveness (AC) grant programs. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says the reason so few college students are eligible for the largest federal aid program of its kind is that they haven’t taken the necessary courses in high school. To be eligible for the AC grant, students must have graduated from "a rigorous secondary school program," which means 3 years of higher level math and science and at least 1 year of a foreign language. The shortfall caused Congress to cut the 2007-08 allocation to $397 million.

  • Contrary to several textbooks and websites, the daily tides on opposite sides of the Earth are due entirely to Newton’s inverse square law, an article in the March issue of Physics Education reminds us. Newton’s law predicts that the gravitational field of the Moon and Sun will be greater on side of the Earth than the field on the other. It has nothing to do with the rotation of the system or with centripetal or centrifugal forces.

  • A new study has found that the most likely undergraduate alma mater for those who earned a PhD in 2006 from a U.S. university was Tsinghua University, while Peking University, its neighbor in Beijing, was second. Between 2004 and 2006 these two schools overtook the University of California, Berkeley as the most fertile training ground for U.S. PhDs, according to an article in the 11 July issue of Science.. South Korea’s Seoul National University occupies fourth place, followed by Cornell University. The rankings were compiled by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology from a survey conducted by the U. S. National Science Foundation.

  • The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and an anniversary paper in the August issue of Medical Physics reviews the development of x-ray computed tomography and the role of AAPM and Medical Physics in its development. The introduction of the first commercial CT scanner in 1972 led to a flurry of publications by academics and industrial researchers. The original system was a dual-slice system that acquired one ray for each of two slices at a time. The source and detector needed to be translated along each section of the patient and then rotated, with the process repeated for 180 projection views. During the 1970s, a more time-efficient fan-beam imaging system developed. The article includes a "look to the future" and 218 references, which may be the most useful feature for medical physics teachers.

  • "Paperless Approach Catching On" is the title of a story in Digital Directions published online August 28 by Education Week. Across the country, more high schools are moving toward paperless classrooms, equipping them with laptop computers, foregoing paper textbooks for online versions. Popular platforms, such as Blackboard, provide "lockdown" modes so that students can take exams on their laptops without browsing the Internet or opening a document. If the test is multiple-choice, students get their scores immediately after taking it. An earlier story in Digital Directions (June 9) compared commercial software, such as Blackboard, with open-source software, such as Moodle.

  • Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) play a key role in producing future scientists and engineers, according to a recent National Science Foundation report on "Baccalaureate Origins of African-American S&E Doctorates." In 2006, 33 percent of the African-American students who earned science or engineering doctorates came from HBCUs, as compared with 25 percent in the early 1990s, according to the report. The top five U.S.-wide baccalaureate-origin institutions for African-American S&E doctorates during the period 1997-2006 were: Howard University, 224; Spelman College, 150; Hampton University, 135; Florida A&M, 100; and Morehouse College, 99.

  • Students learn better when they construct their own understanding of scientific ideas within the framework of their existing knowledge.  An article in the 31 October issue of Science summarizes some of the research of the Physics Education Technology (PhET) project, particularly that related to simulations and student motivation.  An important element of educationally effective simulations is that students view these much as scientists view their research experiments.  A number of characteristics that make a simulation engaging include some of those which make video games engaging including: 1) dynamic visual environments that are directly controlled by the user; 2) challenges that are neither too hard nor too easy; 3) enough visual complexity to create curiosity with being overwhelming.  Students are not able to make sense of the science in the simulation just from watching; they must interact actively with the simulation.  "Most of the learning occurs when the student is asking herself questions that guide her exploration of the simulation and her discover of the answers."  This sort of self-driven exploration is very similar to what a scientist does with an experiment.

Thomas Rossing, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Northern Illinois University, is currently a visiting professor at Stanford University

This article is not peer refereed and represents solely the views of the author and not necessarily the views of APS.