steuard: (physics)
Tuesday, November 25th, 2014 07:42 pm
Backstory: In my classes, I put my email address on the syllabus and tell students that I'll write back as soon as I can (sometimes even at crazy hours, if I happen to be up). Kim is even nicer: she even gives her students her home phone number (with strict instructions not to call past bedtime).

Fast forward to last night: Just as we were starting to clean up from dinner, the phone rang. Kim answered, and then said, "So you're having trouble with quantum mechanics? Sure, I'll get him." She handed the phone to me, and in response to my inquiring look she explained, "It's A---."

It turns out that A--- has the dubious fortune of taking classes from both Kim and me this semester, so when her study group got stuck on stuff for my class, she knew how to reach me. After a couple minutes of attempting to help over the phone, one of the folks in their group said, "We've got lots of questions on this stuff: can we just come talk to you in person?"

I paused for a moment as several thoughts flashed through my head: "Are you kidding? We've got to clean up and start moving toward bedtime." "This would be delightfully random." "Studies show high retention rates for students who make strong connections with faculty in their first semester of college." So I responded, "Sure! Here's our address." And a few minutes later, three students showed up at our door.

They stuck around for half and hour or so, maybe a bit more, and it went really well: with some extra hints and nudging from me, I think all three of them really solidified their understanding of the topic.[1] They also looked like they were having fun, and none of them could quite believe that it was real. (After ten or fifteen minutes, one of them randomly exclaimed, "Hey, remember that time in freshman year when we went to a professor's house at night for help on our homework?") It was fun, and I like to think that it had a positive impact, too.

[1]Namely, how to calculate probabilities when measuring the spin of an electron in a specified superposition state. Maybe I should have looked for some visually simpler way to represent superposition states than Dirac's ket notation, but I don't really know of a better alternative.
steuard: (lake)
Sunday, April 6th, 2014 10:36 pm
I meant to share this earlier (and I don't think I already have), but I've been swamped. I'm still swamped, but I want to close some browser tabs. So here's my fifteen five three and a half minutes of fame in the Alma College student newspaper: Physics professor Jensen receives special recognition for effort inside, outside of classroom; students concur.

This was an award from one of our campus sororities, and I was truly touched when the student who nominated me repeated her nominating speech to the assembled group. She had good things to say about my physics teaching and my dedication to helping her and other students learn the subject and be successful, which was great. But the thing that she really appreciated most was the attention that I have given to women's issues in the classroom: I don't do a whole lot (and for the most part I don't even devote class time to it), but she said that I'm the only male teacher she's ever had (here or at her previous college before she transferred) who ever commented on those topics at all (without it being his actual academic specialty, anyway).

It's a shame that "this guy pays the slightest bit of attention" is enough to merit an award, but if doing my little bit is appreciated that much then I'm awfully glad to keep it up.

On a side note, I have no idea why there's a black and white photo accompanying this online article while the printed newspaper had a color one.
steuard: (lake)
Sunday, April 21st, 2013 10:22 pm
Quite a while ago, I mentioned the "#WowGood2Know" facts that I'd started including with the homework assignments in my intro physics classes; folks seem to like them. Well, this semester I mostly ran out of my existing list of those, and I decided to do something a little different: I shared a slightly longer discussion inspired by a (linked) blog post. That went over pretty well: according to my anonymous midterm course feedback survey, most people were at least a little interested and read what I'd written (even if they didn't usually follow the links), so I kept it up sporadically throughout the semester as I found more relevant links to share. I've now collected all of those discussions onto a web page: "Important Stuff Nobody Thought to Tell You (probably).

If you have a look at that list, you'll find that I wound up focusing on a specific theme: broadly on our social attitudes toward women, and more specifically on sexual violence. I might go further and say that the topic was fundamentally "rape culture", except that I made a point of not using that bit of jargon anywhere (though of course some of the articles I linked to do). I think that every single week that I included one of these discussions on the homework, I had at least one student stop by either after class or at some other time to thank me for drawing attention to these issues and for sharing such thought provoking reading. (A few became downright enthusiastic about what I was doing.) That made me feel awfully glad that I was doing it... and kinda cruddy that the bar was so low.

Not surprisingly (but disappointingly), every single person who gave me that sort of feedback was a woman.
steuard: (lake)
Saturday, April 6th, 2013 10:33 am
Every time I start teaching quantum mechanics in intro physics, I wind up feeling a little disappointed. To most students it's just another set of equations to memorize; they don't understand how much of a radical departure it is from everything we knew before. I suppose that's inevitable to some degree, since modern kids are raised on a diet of atoms and electrons and what seemed radical a century ago is familiar today. But I'd still like them to understand that this is something New, and Important.

So I spent entirely too much of the past week writing something akin to a live-action role playing game. In class on Friday (and continuing into at least part of this coming Monday), the students became world class scientists trying to figure out the "newly discovered" photoelectric effect. They're each a supporter of one of two competing theories of how light (classical electromagnetic waves) interacts with a metal surface to eject electrons and cause current to flow. On Friday, I welcomed them to the conference in the role of the physics department chair at the host institution:

[I stole this picture from a student's public Facebook post, by the way: thanks David T!] In their two big groups and then in six smaller lab groups, the students assembled a set of graphs illustrating their competing predictions, and then the leader of each main group presented their results to the conference.

And after that, the experimental data came in ("from the experimental conference down the hall"). Both groups got some things right, but fundamentally, everyone was wrong! So on Monday we reconvene to see if we can puzzle out the true story. I have absolutely no idea how that's going to go. I've tried to seed elements of the real (quantum!) explanation among them, and if anyone is particular clever or eager to get it right they might think to actually read the textbook. (On their own!) We'll find out! If nothing else, it was clear that they had a lot of fun with the activity, and they really were thinking hard about what their predictions should look like. I feel good about it.

In case you're curious, I'm including a glimpse of one character sheet here. I'll stick it behind a cut: The first page of Prof. Parma's character sheet. )
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, August 31st, 2011 11:25 pm
Just before finals last year, I put up some workplace safety posters around our building:
(I thought about making my own, but it was hard to find good raptor art so I just went with the best existing version I could find online.) I added post-it notes denoting "21" days, then "22", then "23", and a fair number of students seemed to be amused by the whole thing. (I even admitted responsibility to a few of them.)

Flash forward to this past Monday, when I walked into the building and found these:
I have no idea who might have done it, but I was so, so proud. I can only assume it was a student (or more than one).

(Sadly, I realized today that these two posters had disappeared. My first assumption was that a housekeeping person saw the "vandalized" posters and took them down without thinking, but it struck me that it's also possible that they were taken by people who found them as funny as I do.)
steuard: (physics)
Friday, February 25th, 2011 09:03 pm
I'm really enjoying teaching Quantum Mechanics this year. I've got some fun and interested students, and it's an absolute thrill to watch them figure this stuff out (and to completely blow their minds with quantum weirdness from time to time).

Today's class was a great example: I spent half an hour carefully explaining what a "hidden variables" theory is and why that approach is so much more sensible than the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics. I showed them how they could use very general statements about all possible hidden variable theories to make predictions about the results of various experiments. And then at the end of the class period, I got to see them exclaim in frustration when I did a calculation and showed them that those predictions are inconsistent with the predictions of quantum mechanics, and told them that the quantum prediction is confirmed every time someone tries that sort of experiment.

One of my favorite things about the way Townsend approaches this subject in his book is that students are confronted with the crazy aspects of quantum mechanics right from the start and then repeatedly along the way, so that they have just as much time to improve their mistaken intuition as they do to master the technical details of the calculations. It's a real joy to see them go from disbelief to furious concentration to dawning understanding. I like my job.
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 09:25 pm
My summer research student had a mysterious minor disaster at the end of the day: his backpack (and the textbook inside it) was quite thoroughly damp. The backpack had been fine when he set it down beside his desk early this morning; he only noticed the water damage when he started packing up for home.

We have no idea where the water came from. Apart from the wet spot on the floor where the backpack had been, every surface (and ceiling) in his office seemed completely dry (and no papers or dust showed signs of water). The backpack was damp all over, and the textbook had water damage along all three exposed edges of the pages as if water had flowed over the top and around down to the bottom. There weren't any water bottles that could have leaked, and he was in his office most of the day without noticing a thing.

Because of what we've been studying the past day or two, we both initially concluded that water must have quantum tunneled into his backpack from a nearby pipe. :) My more serious guess is that one of the facilities maintenance people (who've been cleaning the area) came by at a time when we were working elsewhere and spilled a fair bit of water onto (and into) his backpack. My charitable assumption is that they didn't notice the spill at all, or else they surely would have said something or at least made some effort to rescue the book. But even that seems surprising: what are the odds that they'd dump a bunch of water into his backpack and nowhere else?

Whatever the cause, we stayed an hour late at work interleaving paper towels between the pages to draw the water out. If that's helped by morning, we'll proceed to stacking heavy weights on top to flatten the pages. I hope it works! (And if it doesn't, hey, I got a free copy of that book from the publisher last year that I'm not particularly using. Merry Christmas to him, or something.)
steuard: (physics)
Friday, February 6th, 2009 09:22 pm
I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student today, but an old PDF viewer bug inspired the printer to reinterpret what I'd written a little:
Image behind a cut... )
steuard: (Default)
Monday, May 12th, 2008 04:55 pm
[Despite first appearances, I promise that the humor here is reasonably accessible to non-physicists.]

The last homework assignment in my statistical mechanics class asked the students to write a computer program to simulate the simple Ising model of a ferromagnet. You model the magnetic material as an array of sites that are "spin up" and "spin down", and the simulation produces images showing how the up (black) and down (white) sites are distributed for various temperatures. Below a certain "critical temperature" the system is mostly magnetized; above that temperature, it becomes increasingly random. Especially interesting things happen right at (or very near) the critical temperature.

A couple of my students found some particularly unexpected results as the temperature approached this special value. Things went pretty much as expected as T decreased closer and closer to the critical temperature (the cluster size gets larger and larger, for example):

But when they made that last temperature change as described at the end of the page scanned above, it led to a result that I didn't expect at all:
At the 'critical temperature' T=Mr )
I've gotta say, my students can be pretty cool.