Archive for February, 2009

The Physics of Watchmen

The big new superhero movie Watchmen has a connection to the University of Minnesota physics department.  How?  Why, through Prof. Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, of course!
Prof. Kakalios served as the science consultant for the movie, based on a graphic novel (that I had never heard of).  For a taste of how he extracts real science from obviously fantastical storylines, check the youtube video below:

Rather than simply blowing off the fantasy as incorrect science, why not use it as a jumping off point to talk about some real interesting phenomena?  Depending on your taste, it may seem a little contrived, but it’s all about appealing to a certain audience.  You’ve already gotten their attention — they think the stuff going on in the comic book is cool — so use that hook to get them interested in a similar real phenomenon.

Continue reading ‘The Physics of Watchmen’

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Teaching Journal Weeks 3 and 4

I’ve gotten a little behind on these updates.  What can I say, the Jackson E&M problem sets are really starting to get hard.  Plus, this past week, I had to grade 217 quiz problems from the first quiz.  But there’s no rest for the weary in this business…

Don’t forget the latest installment of Adventures of the Learning Assistant over at Morning Coffee Physics.

Week Three

The discussion session for week three was a group quiz.  The students, working in the same groups that they’ve been in for the past two weeks, work on a problem that will count as the first question of their quiz, which they finish in class the next day.  It’s nice for the TAs, since we don’t have to answer any questions or help the students like we normally do, so we can just relax (or work on problems from Jackson).

The group problem was a pretty straightforward problem in kinematics, and most of the groups did pretty well.  I have to admit feeling somewhat of a sense of pride as I eavesdropped on the students while they were working.  The group problem solving and approach to physics problems have come a long way in a fairly brief time.

I began the lab in week three by handing out a sheet describing my general expectations for lab reports and going over it a little bit.  I then strongly hinted that the lab that day would be the lab that they would be writing up for the first paper, so they should do a good job on it.  In general, they’re not supposed to know ahead of time which lab they’re writing up, so that they’ll be forced to take good data for every lab they do, but I figured it would be helpful to give them a little break on the first one.

The lab itself was on the normal force and frictional force, with the standard block-sliding-down-ramp setup.  Unfortunately, this lab came a little earlier than the topic of friction in the lecture, which always throws students off, even if, as a TA, you cover the relevant issues in the pre-lab discussion.

I haven’t graded many of the reports yet, so we’ll see how that goes.  The first lab report is always going to be pretty bad, as the students try to feel out my expectations and develop an understanding for what sort of things should go into a lab report.  That’s why they get to re-write the first one.  Uncertain Principles has some interesting discussion about the role of lab reports in undergrad labs that you should check out.

Continue reading ‘Teaching Journal Weeks 3 and 4’

Nerd Love

For your holiday enjoyment, here’s perhaps the nerdiest love song ever:

A Finite Simple Group (of Order Two) by the Klein Four

The jokes are math references, not physics, but most physics students have probably taken enough math to think that this is hilarious.  Topology, calculus, algebra and group theory all make an appearance.  And you’ve gotta love their harmony.

For something a little more physics-related, but perhaps less Valentine’s Day appropriate, check out:

Three Body Problem

Have a great day!

Disbanding the University of Minnesota Graduate School

Unexpected news this week: the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota is no more.  Instead, there will be an Office of Graduate Studies under the Provost’s Office.

So this is supposed to be big news.  There have been front-page articles in the Minnesota Daily, several mass emails, an emergency meeting, and even an article in Inside Higher Ed.

But to a first-order approximation, I see this having NO effect on my life as a graduate student.  Sure, some forms and bureaucracy might change, but I don’t think the changes in my day-to-day life as a student merits all this hand-wringing.

Continue reading ‘Disbanding the University of Minnesota Graduate School’

Teaching Journal, Week 2

Continuing our American/Canadian duality, see Morning Coffee Physics’ Adventures of the Learning Assistant Week 2.

Also, check out Uncertain Principles’ latest installment of his modern physics course report.

Life in the Lab

This week, the second week of classes, was the first week of real labs, consisting of two fairly canonical problems: the falling ball and the cart rolling down a ramp.

Before I got to my first lab, all the TAs for the introductory lab received an email telling us that new video analysis software had been installed on the lab computers.  The old software certainly had its problems; the on-screen instructions were often confusing, and they had a “feature” that made it impossible to go back a step without restarting the lab.  The new software was supposed to fix these problems, among others.

Continue reading ‘Teaching Journal, Week 2’