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: (physics)
Monday, April 28th, 2014 04:40 pm
I'm teaching a First Year Seminar class this fall entitled "Time Travel in Science and Literature", and I'm looking for suggestions on the "Literature" part. I honestly don't know how much reading is reasonable to assign in this context, so my main request here is for short story suggestions. (I'm also considering a couple of short-ish books: Einstein's Dreams by Lightman, and possibly The Time Machine by Wells.)

There are a lot of angles I could take on the "literature" side of things, so I'm open to a wide range of suggestions. The important thing is for time travel itself to be central to the story in some way: there should either be a focus on the "science" itself or it should be an essential ingredient of the plot or the meaning of the story. (That makes me hesitate a bit about the Wells, in fact: his science is quite nice, but I'm a little worried about whether "time travel primarily for purpose of social commentary" strays a little far from my aims. But it is a classic, and that's clearly a valid use of the time travel plot device. I just wonder whether it's a whole novel's worth of value in my context.)

[Edit: Oh, and for the record, I'd love to have a good "twin paradox" story, too.]

Other background info:
I'd like to have included the phrase "the Nature of Time" in the title, too, but it started to feel cluttered... both as a phrase and as a course.

On the science side I have an initial sense of what I'm going to do (probably), including talk about space-time diagrams and having them read (at least part of) Sean Carroll's book "From Eternity to Here". (There are no prerequisites for the class, so I can't really use much math at all: concepts and pretty pictures it is!) I may not have time in the class to talk more than a little bit about entropy and the arrow of time, though, so I'm still contemplating options here, too.
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: (physics)
Friday, October 19th, 2012 11:28 am
I'm up for tenure this year, and as part of that process I'm required to submit a portfolio that "makes the case" that I've fulfilled the college's requirements for tenure and promotion. That's been hanging over my head for months, but at long last it's finally finished! I turned it in on Tuesday, which means that my part of the process is essentially over. (I may have one or two more peer reviewers visiting my classes over the next couple weeks.) Now I can just forget about the whole thing until the end of the semester: I won't hear anything one way or the other until then, so there's no use worrying.

I'm optimistic about the outcome. I feel pretty good about my portfolio itself and about the accomplishments that it describes. On the scholarship side, I got to include the peer review response from my latest journal article: the reviewer didn't have any suggestions to make other than adding a few references, and I directly quoted its concluding line: "In summary this is a high quality piece of work that addresses a well known question and answers it!" For teaching, while there's always room for improvement, I think I do a darn good job, and I decided to pull a few favorite quotes from my end of semester teaching evaluations: "Lots of work, but I’m smarter than I was when I started.", "Most enthusiastic teacher I've ever had since kindergarten. ...This nutjob truly loves this class & loves to teach physics and is the coolest prof I've had to date.", "I had always disliked Physics so I had to put in a lot of effort, but it turns out I like it more than I thought.", and perhaps the highest tenure-credit-per-word quote of all for a liberal arts college, "I look at the world in a different way now."

Classes have been awfully intense, too, but maybe I can finally start getting caught up, without dreading all the high-stress work that the next week will bring my way.
Tags:
steuard: (physics)
Sunday, July 8th, 2012 08:24 am
I've finally finished mucking with my poster of the solar system!

I made some last minor adjustments to the look of it (the black goes all the way to the edge, now, as does a "throwaway" portion of the Sun image), I clarified the license terms (with explicit permission to pay someone to print a copy of your own), and I put up a link to buy the poster on Zazzle. (I don't see much need to also list at CafePress... right?)

I still don't know for sure whether the college will actually decide to print a bunch of these for marketing in August or September. If they do, I might be able to buy a few from them at cost for anyone who'd like to have a copy, which would presumably be cheaper than what you'd get from Zazzle. But you're obviously welcome to just buy the things online, too, and that would give you more flexibility about the size you want. (If you do, let me know how Zazzle's quality is!) If you have any suggestions on making the interface at Zazzle a little easier to use, I'm all ears: it's a bit annoying that I can't specify a minimum size, for instance (and that the "this aspect ratio only" option is more trouble than it's worth).

This'll be my last post about the poster for a while, honest! (Kim will no doubt be glad to hear that.)
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 10:01 pm
When our college president sent out his monthly campus update, I was pleasantly surprised to see my picture: he was happy about the very successful public viewing event that another professor and I arranged for the transit of Venus on June 5. (I'm up for tenure this fall, so the recognition is good!) We got an article on the front page of the local paper that morning, and between that and a campus email we wound up sharing the event with something like 150-200 people over the course of the evening.

It was a lot of fun. We gave people three ways to view the transit. They could stand in line to look through our good telescope (with its solar filter). (That's what's pictured above, though this was just my attempt at a hasty, imperfectly-focused shot right before I had to leave. You can barely even make out the cool sunspots in my picture.) They could look at a fairly large image projected on the wall (pictured below), which wasn't as clear but allowed lots of people to look at once. And finally, they could use my Harvey Mudd solar viewing glasses (thanks, HMC!): it was just possible to make out the round black disk of Venus blocking the sun without magnification, but that was one of the coolest parts of the experience for me.

I won't clutter up everyone's friends pages with pictures... )

That last picture shows an impromptu scale model of the inner solar system that I set up on the football field (right next to the telescopes). I put a picture of the Sun on the 25 yard line, with the right scale to match Earth right on the goal line. Venus then wound up on the 7 yard line. If you click to zoom in on this photo, you might just be able to spot the tiny picture of Earth printed there (which is also to scale, along with the Moon and the distance between them). The solar system is big, and it's something of a miracle that these tiny little planets with their differently-tilted orbits ever manage to line up enough for transits at all. In fact, I got rather excited talking about all this to the crowd: a friend took a video of me giving my last "welcome chatter" of the night, after the crowd had thinned out a lot. (The college made its own video of the event, too. But it doesn't look like anyone thought to take pictures of the long line that we had for the first hour or so.)

Finally, the fun of the event and of tracking down pictures of the sun and planets for my scale model got me interested in making a poster of the planets to put up outside our planetarium. I spent a block of time hunting around NASA websites for big chunks of a weekend and a few evenings, and assembled this:

The full-resolution PDF will print 4'x3' with a resolution of at least 120dpi (and considerably more for many objects); I'll eventually be sharing it under a Creative Commons license. I'm pretty proud of it: you can't read them on this little picture, but each planet and moon comes with some interesting fact about the object. (There are very few posters like this based on real images, and too many of those obsess over dull numerical data instead of remarkable things like Mars's seasonal dry ice caps or Triton's probable geysers of liquid nitrogen.)
steuard: (physics)
Sunday, May 20th, 2012 10:54 pm
When we realized that our trip to see family in Los Angeles was going to line up with the (partial) solar eclipse, Kim and I made sure to bring a pair of the solar viewing glasses that Harvey Mudd sent out to alumni a few weeks ago. We were on our way to dinner when it started (after showing off the baby to a bunch of thrilled relatives all afternoon), and Kim's mom and I got to watch it begin from the car. (We politely declined to pass the glasses to Kim in the driver's seat when she asked for a turn.)

When we got to dinner, it was about halfway to maximum, and we all popped outside in turns occasionally to have a look. I was just about done with dinner when it reached maximum coverage (about 85% here), so I went outside to look. It was great, and when some people nearby looked at me curiously I got all excited and showed them, too. That drew more attention, and more and more people were drawn in by all the ooohs and ahhhs. (There were even a bunch of servers and staff from the restaurant.)

All in all, I probably shared the event with two or three dozen people. It was a fantastic science outreach experience, and I think Kim and her mom mostly forgave me for abandoning them in the restaurant with the baby for 15 minutes or so. (My only disappointment was that with the sun so low in the sky, there wasn't a good view of the crescent shadows under the tree leaves: that's one of the most awesome sights during an eclipse.) I hope Alma's public viewing of the transit of Venus in a few weeks goes as well!
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, December 11th, 2011 01:28 pm
This Tuesday, keep your eyes open for physics news. If you follow any physics blogs, you may have already heard rumors that CERN has scheduled a seminar to present the latest update on the Higgs search. It is being billed as a report on "significant progress", but not "any conclusive statement": assuming the Higgs boson turns out to exist, it looks like its mass is right in the range that's hardest to detect, so we shouldn't expect any definitive results until next summer or even fall. Still, it could be some pretty exciting news... I'll be watching very eagerly. Here's a long writeup on the state of the Higgs search, and a shorter note of caution about statistics in particle physics.

I'll also be writing exams and grading papers and doing all the other things that come along with finals week, of course. Not so much fun (especially since my finals are all at the end of the week, with just a few days before grades are due). But the semester is winding up, and I've got a long block of research leave time to look forward to after we're back from our Christmas travel. I'm looking forward to it!
steuard: (Default)
Monday, July 4th, 2011 03:50 pm
As I mentioned in a recent post, I've been collecting a list of "surprising but important bits of life knowledge everyone should hear". I came up with a number of them myself, and got lots of good ideas on Facebook. I'm planning to share these (one at a time) with my students this fall, but I've also collected them together on the web. If anyone wants to suggest more ideas to add, I'm all ears! Here's the site:
Wow, Good to Know!
steuard: (Default)
Thursday, June 30th, 2011 11:47 pm

I've been soliciting suggestions from various social networks to help me make a list of surprising but important bits of life knowledge that my college students may not have heard. I gave three examples to start things off:

  • Tylenol/acetaminophen OD can be awful: no symptoms for 12 hours, but without help in 8 you need a liver transplant to live.
  • Unless you need help, NEVER talk to police without a lawyer (innocent or not). WATCH THIS: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc.
  • A tender, warm, swollen spot on a leg could be a blood clot waiting to dislodge and kill you: see a doctor fast!

My twitter tag #WowGood2Know utterly failed to draw interest, but on Facebook this is easily the most commented post I've ever had. Early consensus was "This is the scariest FB post ever" (followed by "Steuard, walk. away. from. the. computer."), but it really took off. People have suggested some rather silly things ("Each human has a unique tongue print") and some very valuable ones ("Always be friendly to the secretaries"). I plan to keep collecting and summarize my favorites eventually.

So, any new ideas from folks here? What important insights do you think more people ought to know by college?

steuard: (physics)
Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 05:11 pm
It's been a long, long time since I wrote anything here: I've just finished teaching an intensive one month "Spring Term" class on Medical Physics that met two to three hours a day, five days a week. This might have been less stressful if I'd ever taught (or taken) a class on the subject before (or if I hadn't spent the whole week between my previous final exams and the class starting writing and giving a conference talk in Chicago). But it seems to have gone well, and I've now officially hit summer vacation! That means that I get to procrastinate on baby preparation and paper writing by sharing cool recent science tidbits.

The first is serious physics, and has the potential to be tremendously exciting if it pans out: the CDF experiment at Fermilab may have found the first direct evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics! For a nice layman's summary, my friend Sean Carroll has a good writeup at Cosmic Variance; for some more detail, follow the links to posts at Résonaances. I won't try to repeat them here; I'll just show the exciting data:

and comment that the red line is the expected Standard Model result and the blue bump above would presumably correspond to an entirely new neutral particle about 150 times heavier than a proton. This result still isn't 100% solid: it's a "4.8 sigma" result, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen by chance, but until it's reproduced by Fermilab's D0 experiment or by the LHC there's always the chance that someone forgot to carry a two during the data analysis.

The second thing to share is a beautiful time-lapse video of the Earth rotating under the stars that was recently adapted from an earlier video of stars rotating in the sky. It's a vivid demonstration of the Earth's motion through the heavens that makes you rethink your assumptions about what's really moving when you watch the sky. Here's the video; seriously consider watching it full-screen in HD!
steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 12:39 pm
Man, I love teaching about electromagnetic waves. Today in intro physics I explained Faraday's law, which says that a changing magnetic field will create an electric field, which may cause current to flow around a loop. I then talked about Maxwell's realization that the opposite should also be true: a changing electric field must create a magnetic field. (It's an algebra-based intro class, so I leave out essentially all the details.) Putting those together, you realize (or at least, Maxwell did) that if the two fields can create each other then they can just travel through space on their own as a wave.

And that's where I found myself starting to literally jump up and down in excitement in class. (Well, only a little.) (Ok, I'll be honest, only a little at first.) Waves were the first topic we covered this semester, so we've come full circle. But then I showed them the speed that Maxwell derived for the waves, written in terms of the force constants for electricity and magnetism (which they've all used and measured in lab). I had students with calculators work out the resulting speed: 3.0 * 10^8 m/s. And wonderfully, in both sections, some student spoke up without any prompting and said, "Isn't that the speed of light?"

That's when I really started jumping up and down and talking rather loud. (Not just a little.) Optics was another big topic earlier this semester, and suddenly we've discovered (following Maxwell) that it's all just electromagnetism! Everything we've done really was all one topic after all! Not only do we know some methods for dealing with light, but we know why light works the way it does. I even had each class come out into the hall, form a line, and act out the part of an electromagnetic wave as they ran past a charged particle (me) and made it oscillate up and down.

It's a good class day, and I always forget how cool the topic is until I'm actually in the process of talking about it.

[And now I wonder: have I posted about this in previous years? 'Cause I totally could have. Ah well... it's cool enough to be worth saying again.]
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)
Tuesday, December 28th, 2010 12:29 pm
Kim and I just got back from a very pleasant trip to see my family in Nebraska over Christmas, which means that it's time for me to buckle down and work hard for a few days. I've got my mid-tenure review portfolio due on the first day of class: the results at this point are purely for my information, but doing a good job so I can get the best possible feedback is tremendously important. (I should probably prepare for my new classes and submit this research paper, too.) It's fairly stressful.

I'm confident that I can do a good job on it: the stress factor comes mostly from time pressure. As I think I've mentioned before, Kim and I leave next weekend to go on a cruise with Jonathan Coulton and a bunch of other cool geeky people. That's awesome (and we promise to tell you all about it, except that we've opted not to pay exorbitant rates for internet on the boat so you won't hear a peep out of us until it's over), but it does mean that the odds of me getting much work done after this week are low. (I could finish a few things up on the boat, but I'm pretty sure that would detract from the quality of both the cruise and the work.) But I'm really looking forward to the trip despite the stress.

Finally, in the "wanna-do" category, I've been trying to figure out how to get a bit more physical activity in my life. While in Nebraska, I visited my old Karate instructor Tim Snyder. (If it means anything to you, our style, Koburyu, is part of the Uechi Ryu family.) It was great to catch up with him, and as I watched a bit of a class I kept finding myself twitching with the urge to join in. My years practicing karate were one of the few times that I've managed to get real exercise on a regular basis, and it was also one of the first activities that convinced me that I could have real success in the physical side of my life, too. Frustratingly, my knee issues mean that a lot of the activities there would be a Bad Idea™ for the foreseeable future. So I'd like to find some injured-knee-friendly activity that can capture my interest as much as karate did. (My teacher pointed out that he has knee problems himself, and that there may be ways of modifying our kata and other exercises to work around such issues. I may look into that.)

Ok. With all that babble out of my system, maybe I can buckle down to work now. Right after lunch. :)
steuard: (physics)
Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 07:29 pm
There's been some attention on the intertubes lately to a study based at the University of Colorado about reducing the persistent gender gap in intro physics. One good description of the idea and results is a blog entry at Not Exactly Rocket Science: the gist is that by having students write two 15-minute essays at the start of the term justifying some of their most important values (nothing to do with physics!), the usual gap between male and female course grades (and assessment scores) was essentially eliminated. That's a Big Deal(TM), because physics has the worst gender imbalance of all the sciences (including math and CS, and I think even most engineering specialties).

That blog post is a very nice summary of this research, which is much more than I can say for the article on Ars Technica where I first saw this study mentioned. One major flaw of the Ars article was its title: "Self-affirming essay boosts coeds' physics skills". I loathe the word "coed" used in this way, so much so that I suspect that its use here actively makes physics gender inequality worse. (Seriously, does anyone under the age of 40 use "coed" to mean "college woman" in any context except porn?)

The other big flaw of the Ars article (which left me horribly skeptical about the research) was that it gave no indication of how a physics professor is supposed to nonchalantly slip a completely irrelevant essay assignment into the class. Happily, the blog post explains that it was billed as an exercise to improve writing skills. That actually feels plausible, and it's a great fit for my class: I've always insisted that students explain their equations with English sentences (for many good reasons). So I may very well try this myself, if not next semester then next fall. I hope it helps!
steuard: (physics)
Saturday, October 16th, 2010 10:55 pm
I've just made it through a horribly exhausting week. I had an exam to grade for the 55 students in my intro physics classes, and I was also giving a "faculty forum" talk about my highly specialized research to a very much non-specialist audience. The week was made harsher by what Kim too kindly described as me "failing my time management roll": I didn't accomplish much last weekend, and I wasn't entirely on-task during the week, either. (I unwisely spent a significant block of time one night looking into possible hardware and software to upgrade our college's planetarium.)

But I did finally get the exams graded and returned, and I somehow managed to prepare a halfway decent talk. I felt pretty good about it, and I think it was well received, though several people have mentioned that everything I said made perfect sense, but only until the talk was over and they left the room. I guess I need to figure out how to make a more lasting impact. (Well, maybe that's clear: Step 1 is probably "don't try to describe all of modern physics in an hour." Not that I was quite that bad.)

But now, thank goodness, I've got a little chance to rest and recuperate, and this coming week is shortened for fall break. I'm happy about that.
steuard: (physics)
Tuesday, July 20th, 2010 12:44 pm
In research papers, I'm very clear on the proper protocols for citing previous work and giving attribution to those whose ideas I'm building on. But I've always been enormously less clear on what the right moral and legal procedures are on the teaching side of my job.

For example, I usually write exam problems from scratch (or substantially altered from someone else's inspiration) but I have the impression that it's fairly common for people to simply grab problems out of other textbooks. Do the usual academic standards of proper attribution apply? (I've only rarely seen professors provide citations in their exam problems. Identifying the source could even invite integrity problems if it's a take-home exam.) In a research paper, I'd want to cite the source that gave me the idea even if I changed it completely when I used it, but when writing exams or homework that convention doesn't seem to hold at all.

I've been puzzled for years about similar issues with textbooks. How do you write a textbook for something like introductory physics without inevitably stealing ideas and approaches from the zillions of textbooks that you've used or read in the past? In research, most textbook-level facts aren't given citations at all, but what about specific analogies or ways of explaining a topic? What about a novel choice of order for the topics in the course? Did the second physics text that included chapter summary pages have to cite the first? (Or going farther, did its publisher risk a copyright lawsuit?)

I assume that major publishers have legal departments that are familiar with all the formal standards for that sort of thing. But if there are (or someday are) efforts to write freely available textbooks independently, how do the contributors deal with this sort of thing?
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steuard: (Default)
Monday, July 19th, 2010 09:12 pm
Today's xkcd comic raises point:

It seems awfully likely to me that graphing calculators have stagnated for some of the same reasons that textbook prices have skyrocketed. They're selected by people who don't have to pay for them, institutions tend to standardize on something and stick with it out of inertia, and their cost gets lumped in with the high cost of education (public or private).

I don't know what to do about graphing calculators (short of having everyone buy computers or something that they're likely to use ever again), but there are bound to be new possibilities in the works for textbooks. I'd think that some sort of free, "open source" textbook series could do quite well (especially if there were a reasonable way for college bookstores to print it on demand). Anyone out there know of such a thing in the physics world? (Intro physics especially.)