Session Report: “Inspirational Approaches to Teaching Physics and History of Physics”

By Catherine Westfall

Image from Episode 1 of Cosmos (2014)

Image of Giordano Bruno being sentenced by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, from Episode 1 of Cosmos (2014), produced by Cosmos Studios, Fuzzy Door Productions, and the National Geographic Channel for Fox TV).

This interesting and well-attended session was co-sponsored by FHP and the Forum on Education (FEd) and organized by Randall Knight of FEd and myself. The session began with a talk by Brian Schwartz entitled “The Use of Theater and the Performing Arts in Science Education and the Teaching of History.” Schwartz gave an impressive amount of information based on his own experience with a science outreach series at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In addition to tips on how to incorporate various forms of drama into specific curricula, he gave a long list of science plays and commentary on them. He also recommended a book for anyone interested in customizing a course that combined science, history, and theatre for science or non-science students: Science and the Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr.

The next talk, “Bruno, Galileo, Einstein: The Value of Myth in Physics” was by Alberto Martinez from the University of Texas at Austin. Using original research from primary sources Martinez explained commonly misunderstood episodes in the history of science. We learn that, despite scholarly insistence on the contrary, Giordano Bruno’s cosmological ideas were the key charges that led him to be burned at the stake, that Galileo’s experiments with the leaning tower of Pisa were not at all what we have read since our childhood, and that even other-wise well-resourced books on Einstein carry falsehoods. While some of these myths might be surprising, it is of course not surprising that such myths exist. However, Martinez did provide an interesting twist: he showed that myths can be exposed in the classroom in a way that engages students and encourages a more penetrating analysis of science, how it is recorded, and how we perceive it.

Next, Bob Jacobsen spoke on “Teaching Physics to Future Presidents,” based on a course at the University of California at Berkeley. This course, which draws a large number of students who will eventually go into politics, prepares students to make decisions in a physical, technological world. In an unusual departure from the usual tendency to make courses for non-science majors largely free of quantitative reasoning, this course is highly quantitative even though it uses only a bit of algebra. In addition to including traditional text and homework for general information, the course includes demonstrations and discussion-based lectures. In addition, for the sake of engaging the high-ability students, the class also includes essays and readings on current events and articles.

The final talk was “Composing Science” by Leslie Atkins. Atkins described a course developed at California State University at Chico developed by those in the faculties of biology, physics, and English. This course, which helps meet the “writing proficiency” requirement for non-science majors takes an unconventional approach. Rather than expecting students to produce standard forms of scientific writing, this group of educators organizes students in groups that explore and discover scientific concepts (for example, how light is propagated). Then they use scientific writing in the way that actual scientists use writing, that is, to have, remember, share, vet, challenge, stabilize ideas. Atkins showed video of the class in action, demonstrating how this develops not only writing skills, but also a greater understanding of what science really is.

Since the fifth speaker, Louis Bloomfield, was unable to come due to last-minute travel problems, the audience and speakers finished the session with a wide-ranging discussion that included questions and comments inspired by the other talks.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.