March 16, 2015

To the student who left the scathing review on RMP - thanks and I'm sorry

I'm not really in the habit of checking up on my "Rate My Professors" (RMP) page, but coincidence led me there on the same day that this post was made by a student in one of my algebra-based physics sections from what I assume is this semester.  I suppose that I am a bit heartened that the student was at least thinking about physics on Pi Day. 

I want to be very honest - I have two messages for this student: thank you and I apologize.

Thank you for leaving your feedback before the end of the semester. Too often I find the feedback on RMP left in the days or weeks after the course ends. Thank you for voicing your frustration before the end of the semester so that we can work together to make the rest of the semester go better for your entire class.

Although I sincerely want to thank you for leaving this message, I wish that you would have come to me directly with your concerns and complaints. I try to treat all students in my classes as adults and expect that we can interact with each other civilly as adults via direct conversations on the phone, in person or over email. By leaving an anonymous message on RMP, you clearly did not agree. For that, I wish to apologize to you.  I apologize that I did not work hard enough to foster a classroom climate where you felt comfortable enough to come to me directly. It is my responsibility to provide a rich learning environment in which you can freely discuss any issues with me. I have either failed to do that, or I have failed to communicate that intent to you. Either way, I intend to increase my efforts to offer avenues for all students to communicate with me.

In your comment you claim that there have been "Literally no lectures or notes in the class." I am not sure if that is hyperbole or not. Each time we begin looking at a new conceptual objective, I have filled the chalkboards with introductions to the objective as well as countless examples of how to do problems related to each objective.  I apologize that I was not more clear about the blurring together of lecture with what might typically be called a recitation. At our college, we use a Studio Physics approach to learning physics. Studio Physics means that we are always in the lab (or studio) so we can easily bounce back and forth between lecture, recitation, and laboratory. Our college has a long tradition of using this approach, and I apologize that I was not more clear about that. I will try my best to delineate the shifting between different aspects of the class. I admit I believe it will be difficult for me to do better on this, since I had thought that you all were doing pretty well with shifting from one aspect to another, but I will try to be better.

You state that "Everything is based off the multiple worksheets...which we never go over anyways." I apologize that I have not been more direct with you about how crucial I believe your participation in an active-learning classroom is to your learning. By now, I hope that you have read the article written by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman on the superiority of active-learning over the traditional method of only lecturing to students. There are two quotes that I want to be sure you understand. The first:
"In active learning methods, students are spending a significant fraction of the class time on activities that require them to be actively processing and applying information in a variety of ways, such as answering questions using electronic clickers, completing worksheet exercises, and discussing and solving problems with fellow students." 
With the exception of electronic clickers, how does that description compare to our class? The second quote:
"...any college or university that is teaching its STEM courses by traditional lectures is providing an inferior education to its students."
Remember that it is not me who is claiming that our method of learning is superior, it is a Nobel laureate who is reviewing the data before him making this claim. I apologize that I have not been more direct in discussing why we do what we do in our class. I hope that I have rectified this situation, but please let me know if there is anything else I can do about it. Additionally, I have made a concerted effort in the two weeks before your feedback was posted to review ALL of the worksheets that we have done in class. Sometimes I ask you to review the worksheets with other students. I try as hard as I can to make sure that all of you understand the correct answers to the worksheets. Sometimes, I don't want to be the one who is giving the explanation for the questions, though. My goal is to get you to a place where you don't need me - you only need the physical laws and correct application of the concepts to reach correct conclusions. I am truly sorry that my desire for you to know and appreciate the wonders of the physical world has not been made more well know to you. I am constantly looking for better ways for me to convey this to you in a way that is not always me just simply telling you. I will continue to try to improve.

Your statement that I use sarcasm in class is true. I am deeply sorry if you interpret my sarcasm to be a personal attack on you. I assure you, it is not. I do not and will not use sarcasm to demean or belittle you as a person. I have been very frustrated this semester that so few of you have done much of the homework. I have wrongly used sarcastic remarks to vent some of this frustration. I had hoped that the sarcasm would work to get you to think differently about how you can use homework to grow your understanding of physics, but I can see that I was wrong. I apologize for that. I failed to give you a more constructive way to ask about homework questions. That, too, was wrong. Here is how I will change that: instead of asking me "Can you show us how to do problem XX from Chapter Y?" you can ask "I was having trouble with problem XX from Chapter Y. The first thing I did was blahblahblah, then after that I wanted to blah, but I got stuck there. Can you help me get unstuck?" This will show me that you have made an honest attempt at the problem and also help me get a window into your way of thinking about the problem.

In summary, thank you again for bringing this to my attention and for doing so before the end of the semester. We have talked in class about everyone's ability to grow and improve. I have apologized for my failures and outlined how I intend to do better to provide a rich learning environment for you. You still have time left in the semester. What will you do to grow and improve your knowledge of physics?

February 02, 2015

Bad Vibes - Is there such a thing as "sound therapy"?

I stumbled across this article recently where the title asks the question: "Is a Sound Bath the New Way to De-Stress?" The subtitle promises to show you "(h)ow to cut through the noise and attain inner peace." What the article actually describes is a mix of half-truths and straight up pseudoscience.

Music is used by people to relax, de-stress, and as a part of a mediation routine. There is nothing wrong with making such claims. But phrases like "balance energy flow," "energetic stagnation," and a claim that sounds can help treat knee pain caused by running just make set off my BS detector.

I don't expect a fashion magazine to be bastion for accurate science reporting. But they shouldn't let their interview subjects make scientific claims without a little bit of fact checking.

For more about pseudoscientific claims surrounding the healing power of sound see the article called "Healing and Harming Sounds" (about halfway down that page)

November 04, 2014

I'm a little bit stuck - where did I go wrong?

I was asked by a colleague why the amplitude of tangential modes of a ring or cylinder scale as \(cos(m\theta)/m\).

The answer was given by Rayleigh in his Theory of Sound, which you can read on The Internet Archive. Here's the relevant part:

The relevant solution to the differential equation (1) in Rayleigh for the tangential component has the  \(cos(m\theta)/m\) behavior.  

But, I wasn't able to start with Rayleigh's coordinates and end up with his equation (1).

Here's my work; where did I go wrong?

October 23, 2014

New Physics Drawings File: Springs

I added a new file to the Physics Drawings page. The file has my interpretation of stretched springs for use in physics homework, assessments, or presentations. All the files open in LibreOffice and compatible applications. They are CC licensed, so go nuts with using them.

August 02, 2014

AAPT Summer meeting twitter analytics #aaptsm14

The Summer meeting of AAPT 2014 has come and gone.  It was fantastic to get to engage with so many incredible teachers, to hear what they are doing in their classrooms, to catch up with old friends, and make some new ones.

The use of twitter at the AAPT conferences has grown over the past few years. Rhett had a post at the end of the 2013 Winter meeting in New Orleans which showed only 116 tweets using the conference hashtag.

This past meeting, there were over 1500 uses of the conference hashtag (#aaptsm14) according to Tweetarchivist. Using the tools from Tweetarchivist and checking some other analytics, I’m guessing that there were at least 42 users who used the conference hashtag to post to twitter not counting users who retweeted a post containing the hashtag.

75% of the tweets came from the top 25 users.  Who was the most prolific tweeter?  @LCTTA had 202 tweets (representing just over 13% of all tweets), compared to AAPT’s official account, which had a respectable 145 tweets (9.6%). Third place went to @rutherfordcasey with 97 tweets (6.4%).  The top 25 users are displayed below. There were a LOT of great tweets from many attendees (and many who were following from home). Check out some of these physics teachers and consider following them!

I made a word cloud of the most popular words used. By far the most popular word was “students” if I counted the twitter abbreviation “Ss”. Also “learning” was slightly more popular than “teaching” 

What about the use of twitter through the week? The amount of tweets during the day took a dip in the middle of the conference, then were strong on the last day:

Screenshot from Tweetarchivist
The most popular phone used to tweet was the iPhone (no idea what model). I’d love to give props to the attendees who were using either a Blackberry (2 tweets posted) or Windows Phone (1 tweet posted) but I have no idea which user was on that one.  The breakdown of clients is shown below. I combined the  iPad and iPhone results, although the iPhone posts dominated.
Breakdown of twitter clients used:

iOS (all clients) 610
Tweetdeck 259
Android (all clients) 227
Web interface 152
Hootsuite 114
Other 148 

Finally, for fun, I have the top mentions of users as well as the other popular hashtags used in posts also tagged with #aaptsm14 - The top users mentioned were @AAPTHQ with 118 mentions.  This makes sense, as there were many people tweeting questions at AAPT.  The next user with the most mentions was @rutherfordcasey, who was organizing many of the meet-ups as well as tweeting about great sessions he was in.  The popular hashtags used included #perc2014 and #modphys.

Top users by posts they made:

Top Users COUNT
rutherfordcasey 97
SciEdHenry 92
drmagoo 90
eigenadam 77
TRegPhysics 57
achmorrison 55
dyanlj 39
fnoschese 37
SteveMaier_ 30
distractons 26
MartaStoeckel 26
QuantumTweep 21
UniverseAndMore 20
OpenStax 18
MsPoodry 17
Cabertram92 16
ng_Holmes 16
arundquist 16
rjallain 15
danny_doucette 15
astronomatty 14
MnSTA1 13 

Mentions of users in posts:

Top Users COUNT
@rutherfordcasey 114
@EEtkina 65
@SciEdHenry 54
@achmorrison 52
@eigenadam 43
@bohacekp 37
@TRegPhysics 33
@MartaStoeckel 31
@drmagoo 30
@dyanlj 28
@kellyoshea 22
@UniverseAndMore 22
@arundquist 21
@distractons 18
@MsPoodry 17
@chrisgoedde 17
@leetramp 17
@ng_Holmes 17
@MrBWysocki 17
@UMNews 16
@jossives 16
@sciencegeekgirl 13
@phyzman 13 

Popular hashtags used along with #aaptsm14

Hashtags COUNT
#perc2014 38
#modphys 34
#physicsed 31
#ngss 15
#newbies 11
#scavengerhunt 11
#scied 10
#msum 8
#physics 6
#tweetup 6
#directmeasurementphysicsvideos 5
#shameless 5
#minneapolis 4
#dmvideo 4
#perc14 3
#gamedev 3
#dbir 3
#edcampmsmn 3
#umn 3
#arduino 3
#womeninstem 3
#math 3
#scaleup 3
#edtech 3

August 01, 2014

Words matter (was What does "brick and mortar" make you think of?)

(Note: I posted a version of this originally on July 31, 2014. It was accidentally deleted, and I was unable to recover the original post. I rewrote the missing parts and added an epilogue at the end.)

The PERC conference kicked off with an interesting talk by Mike Dubson from CU Boulder. There is a great summary of the talk by Stephanie Chasteen over at her blog. The talk was about comparing a traditional large lecture-hall physics class to a MOOC of identical content.

I was struck, however, by the repeated use of the term "brick and mortar” to refer to the face-to-face course. To me, the terminology immediately invoked a business metaphor, with the student as a customer and the professor as a service provider.  I asked the presenter if that was an intentional choice of words, but I don't believe that my question was understood before he chose to move on. (Incidentally, I specifically remembered him using the word "customer" to refer to a student enrolled in the MOOC, but he claimed he did not use that word.)

The use of "brick and mortar" and "customer" to refer to a learning environment reminded me of the advertisement for a faculty position at a college that demanded the candidate be able to provide excellent customer service. David Perry wrote a series of posts on that which you can read about on his blog.

My take-away from Perry's articles was that the words we choose to use have an impact on how we act. If we believe education is more than a business transaction, then we must not use words which make it easier for administrators, students, other faculty, parents and the public to expect that sort of relationship with us.

Prof. Dubson had earlier in his talk stated his belief that education is the process by which our collective knowledge and understanding is passed down from generation to generation. At the end of his talk he concluded by telling us about the elementary school teacher who inspired in him a love for reading. He said that those types of teachers cannot be automated or replaced by a computer. His passionate love for great education was clear.

If the type of teacher that drives great education cannot be automated, then it certainly can't be reduced to a simple transactional relationship that words such as "brick and mortar" or "customer" cue us to think. Nor can the responsibility of passing down the world’s collective knowledge, understanding and culture be simply bought like a box tissues with a click of a button or a swipe of a credit card.

Words matter. We need to be intentional about using them.


I was privileged to be able to co-host a discussion session at PERC which was about how the physics education and physics education research community should be thinking about implementing what we called in the abstract “Competency-Based Assessment” but which goes by many names. I was honored that Eugenia Etkina (and so many other people!!) showed up for this discussion. 

After listing many of the names by which the assessment strategy is called, I had intended to switch to the more familiar “Standards Based Grading” (SBG) name for our session. Prof. Etkina raised her hand and pointed out how we know that grades and grading causes stress for our students and is not at all what we want to emphasize. She pointed out that the standards are measured by assessments. 

I saw immediately the parallel between what she was pointing out to me and what I had been asking the speaker on the day before. Words matter. Even if I don’t intend to use the term “standards based grading” with my students it will better form our thinking if we remind ourselves that we are intentionally taking the emphasis off of grading. In our session we immediately switched to using the term “Standards Based Assessment and Reporting” (SBAR) which I intend to use exclusively going forward.

Words matter. Changing our use of words can be done; we just have to be intentional about it.

April 21, 2014

Frustration and failure - things to capitalize on to facilitate learning

There's a great answer to the question on Quora: "Why do we get frustrated when learning something?"

Read Quote of Marcus Geduld's answer to Why do we get frustrated when learning something? on Quora

There's much more to the answer on Quora. Hopefully you can see all of it if you click through.