Thursday, April 21, 2016

Online Students - Are They As Good?

This is essentially a follow-up to my post on Education Technology.

So, after doing this for a while and trying to put two-and-two together, I'm having a bit of skepticism about online learning and education. I know it is in-fashion right now, and maybe in many other subjects, this is effective. But I don't see it for physics.

I've mentioned earlier on why students who undergo online learning via the online interface that they use often lack problem-solving techniques, which I consider as important as understanding the material itself. However, in this post, I also being to question if they actually know what we THINK they know. Let me explain.

My students do their homework assignment "online", as I've mentioned before. They have to complete this each week. I get to see how they perform, both individually, and as a group. I know what questions they got right, and what they got wrong. So I can follow up by going over questions that most students have problems with.

But here's the thing. Most students seem to be doing rather well if I simply base this on the online homework scores. In fact, just by looking at the HW statistics, they understand 3/4 of the material rather well. But do they?

I decided to do some in-class evaluation. I give them short, basic questions that cover the material from the previous week, something they did in their homework. And the result is mind-boggling. Many of them can't answer the simplest, most basic question. And I let them open their text and notes to answer these questions. Remember, these are the topics that they had just answered in the HW the previous week that were way more difficult than my in-class questions.

For example, a HW question may ask for the magnitude and direction of the electric field at a particular location due to 2 or more charges located at some distance away. So for my in-class question, I have a charge Q sitting at the origin of a cartesian coordinate, and I ask for the E-field at a distance, say 3 cm away. And then I say that if I put a charge q at that location, what is the force acting on it that charge? Simple, no? And they could look at their notes and text to solve this.

If the students could manage to solve the more difficult HW problem, the question I asked should be a breeze! So why did more than half of the class gave me answers as if they had never seen this material before?

This happened consistently. I will ask a very basic question that is way simpler than one of their HW question, and I get puzzling answers. There appears to be a huge disconnect between what they did in the online HW, and their actual knowledge of the very same material that they should have used to solve those HW problems. They performance in completing the online HW has no correlation to their understanding of the material.

All of this becomes painfully obvious during the final exam, where they have to sit for it in class, and write down the solution to the questions the old-fashion way. The majority of the students crashed-and-burned. Even when the questions were similar to the very same ones they solved in their HW, some did not even know how to start! And yes, they were allowed to look at their notes, texts, and their old HW during the finals.

So what are the reasons for this? Why is there such a disconnect between their performance online, and what they actually can do? While there might be a number of reasons for this, the only one that I find most plausible is that they had some form of assistance in completing their online work. This assistance may be in the form of (i) previously-done HW from another source and/or (ii) another person who is more knowledgeable or had taken the course before. The online performance that I see often does not accurately reflect the level of knowledge the students actually have.

So this led me into thinking about all these online courses that many schools are beginning to offer. Some even offer entire degree that you can get via online courses. I am well-aware of the conveniences of these forms of learning, and for the right students, this may be useful. However, I question the quality of knowledge of the students, on average, that went through an online course or degree. If my haunch is correct, how does one know that the work that has been done online was done purely by that student? Sure, you can randomize the questions and insert new things in there, but there is still the question on whether the student had an external assistance, be it partially or entirely.

I asked on here a long time ago if anyone have had any experience with students in physics who went through an online program, either partially or for an entire degree program. I haven't had any responses, which might indicate that it is still not very common. I certainly haven't encountered any physics graduate students that went through an online program.

Like I said, maybe this type of learning works well in many different areas. But I don't see how it is effective for physics, or any STEM subject area. Anyone knows how Arizona State University does it?


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Debunking Three Baseball Myths

A nice article on the debunking of 3 baseball myths using physics. I'm not that aware of the first two, but that last one, "Swing down on the ball to hit farther" has always been something I thought was unrealistic. Doing that makes it more difficult to get a perfect contact, because the timing has to be just right.

This is no different than a serve in tennis, and why hitting the ball at its highest point during a serve gives you a better chance at getting at the racket's sweet spot.


Monday, April 11, 2016

"Fart Detector" Wins Chinese Physics Prize

OK, there are many aspects this story.

When I first read the title, I honestly read it as "Fast detector", which is reasonable, because fast detectors are useful. But when I read it again, I did a double take. So of course, I had to open the link to the story and figure out what this is.

Turns out that that wasn't the original intent of this detector. Rather, it is trying to sniff any odor in a moving air and to locate the source. Of course, the media, even in China, took it to its most obvious "application" such as sniffing (pun intended) the source of a fart. Question is, what do you do when you find the culprit? Is it unlawful in China for someone to fart in public? Do you shame this individual for such an act?

Finally, it turns out that the prize given is the "Pineapple" prize because "...the fruit which in China is said to be so ugly that only the brave and curious would explore its delicious interior..."


I guess this is another example of beauty in the eye of the beholder. I had never, even a second, consider the pineapple to be an "ugly" fruit. In fact, if you've been in to Hawaii or the tropics (especially in South East Asia where the fruit is abundant), it is considered to be beautiful enough to be used as decorations!

In any case, I don't think this research work is "useless" to even qualify for an Ig Nobel prize.


Friday, April 01, 2016

Education Technology - Is It All Good?

First of all, I'm sure I'm a dinosaur as far as education technology is concerned. I come from an old school where HW assignments are done on paper, and students submit them to a TA or instructor to have them graded. Or a situation where students do their quizzes or exams by writing them on paper and submit them after completion.

I'm still not used to an education system where students do their HW online, and even do their weekly quizzes and exams online. I'm sure there are many different systems and ways of doing this. However, I still see two things from the students perspective: (i) it is tedious to draw a sketch, which is often needed in tackling physics problems, and (ii) it is tedious to write mathematical equations.

Because of this, a lot of online exercises often simply ask you to enter just a number, or pick from a multiple choice of solutions. This is what I often deal with right now with students' homework assignment. Oh sure, I have the option of assigning my own HW questions if I wish, but the majority of the instructors opt for the former, and I need to be consistent with others.

So what problems do I see with this education methodology? First of all, you do not get to see how the students approach the problem. All you see are answers, and if they get them right, or wrong. You don't know if the students don't know where to start, or if they simply make some silly math error along the way. You cannot diagnose if they have a serious problem or not in understanding the material.

Secondly, despite my strong recommendations that they actually write down and work out the problem till they get the answer, and then enter that answer online, most students simply scribbled out their work to get an answer and once they are done, the scribble is either discarded, or they can't comprehend what they did when they go back to it later on. They do not have a clear detail on what they did, be it right or wrong, that they can learn from later on. So how exactly do they revise for their exams?

Seeing and understanding how problems are solved, and learning from mistakes, are the most effective means of understanding a topic and being able to solve problems. I think I kept most, if not all, of my upper/graduate-level physics class homework assignments (they are somewhere in boxes in the basement). So I don't know how the new generation of students learn and more importantly, RETAIN the stuff that they had learned and done.

The consequence from all of these is that, when they had to sit down for an exam, where they had to write down all the work, many students crashed! Despite being shown how to properly solve problems in class (I did numerous examples), many students still can't properly sketch out a problem (some didn't even bother to do one), and it was jaw-dropping how many still start off their work by writing in just numbers in an "equation", without first writing the symbolic form.

I've been trying to remedy that in subsequent classes that I taught. I have weekly written quizzes to get the students into the habit of solving problems properly, etc. But I think most of them already have the mindset of doing things online, because many of their other classes adopt this method of education. So my way of doing things are more of the "ancient" method of education. I continue to let then do HW assignments online just so they cover the same type of material as students in other similar classes, but I'm insisting that they do their quizzes the old fashion way.

I'm not a techno-phobia. In fact, I posted a blog entry on the easiest way to do lab notebooks using tablets. But in this case, technology may be a hindrance to learning. It may work in many other subject areas, but I somehow don't see it working in physics and mathematics (and maybe the rest of the STEM subjects). These are often not a plug-and-chug subject areas, and it is not conducive to online interface.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Has Bill Nye, The Science Guy, Lost It?

Or did he ever had it in the first place?

My attention was brought to this via Hamish's blog at Physics World. He pointed out the sharp critique against Nye in Sabine Hossenfelder's "Back Reaction" blog entry. It all stemmed from Nye's video answering a question regarding quantum entanglement, where it appears that Nye got tangled in it himself.

You may read the criticism yourself (be warned, there are some "colorful" language being used in there).

I think that while Nye has done quite a bit in the media to popularize science, I often find his off-script or unscripted responses a bit suspect at times. This is another one such example. It is my impression that he knows the pop-science version of science, but not the intimate detail. Of course, you often do not need the intimate detail when dealing with the general public, which is why he could manage to do this for this long. But when confronted with something that requires a bit more in-depth knowledge, especially in physics, this is where he trips.

I don't know why he doesn't consult an expert when he responded to this person in this video clip. After all, I'm sure it isn't "live", and he could have easily checked if what he was saying was accurate, or nonsensical. Unfortunately, he went into the realm of nonsensical, and he didn't even realize it.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Solve QM Particle-In-A-Box Problem Using Code

Rhett Allain shows you how to solve the standard 1D infinite square well problem using numerical method.

I know he is using this as a simple illustration, but it is more useful, especially to physics students, if he solves this for a finite square well.

But still, for the general public, this might be complicated enough. I wonder if someone with just computer coding but little physics can code this successfully. If you fall under this category, let me know how you did if you took up this task.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Simple Physics?

I'm all for explaining things in simple terms that the general public can understand. I do that frequently, especially when I'm doing an outreach project or hosting visitors to the facility.

So when I read a review of this book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff In Simple Words by Randall Munroe, it sounds like something that can be recommended to a lot of people who are curious about how various things around them work.

However, this author, and the reviewer of this book, fall into the same cliche trap that is one of my pet peeve.

There’s a nice quote attributed to the physicist Ernest Rutherford (or is it Einstein?): “If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not very good physics.” There are variations of the theme, such as, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”. In essence, keep it as simple as possible.

I had already addressed the fallacy of this statement (and yes, I am challenging Rutherford or Einstein if they actually said such a silly thing). I have plenty of evidence to point to the contrary. I wish people who keep repeating this would actually read my counter point, but hey, what are the odds?


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Professional Climate for LGBT Physicists

Many different issues have been discussed regarding challenges faced by women and minorities in physics. Unfortunately, very little effort has been dedicated to the challenges faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender physicists. And yes, there ARE LGBT physicists, even if you are not aware of their existence.

The APS, to their credit, has taken steps to address this. This study is the first such report to discover the state of the profession and how LGBT physicists fare in the current climate.

In the general membership survey demographic question (sent to a random sample of society members), just 2.5 percent of total respondents identified as LGBT over all, and 14 percent preferred not to provide such information. But U.S. respondents were twice as likely (3 percent) to answer as non-U.S. respondents. Respondents between 18 and 25 years of age were significantly more likely than the overall population to identify as LGBT, at 16 percent, suggesting a generational shift in comfort disclosing their status (just 6 percent of respondents in that age group declined to provide an answer).

Committee members found that LGBT physicists face uneven protection and support for legislation and policies, both in the U.S. and abroad. Some 50 percent of survey respondents rated their campus or workplace policies as “highly supportive” or “supportive,” while 30 percent characterized them as “uneven,” “lacking” or “discriminatory.” Only 40 percent of transgender respondents said their workplaces were supportive to some degree.
I personally have not observed any hostility towards LGBT physicists or even LGBT personnel in my professional career. Of course, the environment where I worked (US National Labs and Universities) already have policies strictly prohibiting discrimination and harassment against such group. I am sure others in various situations, such as private industries, will have a different atmosphere to deal with, So this study is definitely needed to have a snapshot of the situation at this point in time.


Monday, March 14, 2016

In Praise Of APS March Meeting

The APS March Meeting is the LARGEST yearly gathering of physicists in the world. Yet, as Chad Orzel has stated, it is hardly covered by the media.

In this article, Orzel writes why this is so, and why the media and the public should pay more attention to this gathering.

As with lots of things, though, the primary reason for the difference is probably money. Which, in a way, goes back to the irony noted above. Particle physics as a discipline puts a lot more effort into popularization because they have to in order to get funding. Fundamental physics experiments produce some spin-off benefits, but those are second-order effects, difficult to predict and harder to monetize.

Condensed matter research, on the other hand, leads to a more direct payoff, and thus comes with a more secure funding stream. You don’t have to work all that hard to convince wealthy industrialists that it’s worthwhile to spend money on developing new materials that will lead to new and improved commercial products. The funding stream for the field is a little more secure, thanks to the more direct path to applications, and thus there’s less need to make the effort to explain a complicated subject. Which then feeds back into the first two reasons.

This is kind of a shame, because when you dig into it, a lot of what goes on in condensed matter is just as amazing as what you see in particle physics. In fact, a lot of effort goes into creating analogues of exotic systems. And if you look at it the right way, there’s some quantum magic in the most basic aspects of the ways solid objects come together.

Certainly, the sexiness of the topic makes a big difference. But as I've stated many times on here, physics isn't just the LHC and the Big Bang. It is also your iPhone and your MRI. And it is about time the public is more aware of this.


Wednesday, March 09, 2016

"That Physics Show" Opens Off-Broadway

I mentioned this a while back. It is certainly an ambitious and daring move, to do a stage presentation of nothing but a series of physics demonstration. Would this get an audience, much less, a paying audience?

In any case, "That Physics Show" has opened off-Broadway in NY City.

That Physics Show officially opens March 9 for an open-ended run at the Elektra Theater Off-Broadway. The show, which began previews February 26, features "scientific magic" by physics demonstrator David Maiullo.

A regular on The Weather Channel, Maiullo brings more than 20 years of experience teaching physics at Rutgers University. The show is directed and produced by Eric Krebs. 

However, an early review of it hasn't been too enthusiastic.

Maiullo is not a natural performer, but once he starts igniting hydrogen balloons, smashing beer cans with ping pong balls, dunking fresh flowers into a deep freeze, and using a bowling ball as a pendulum, you don’t mind.

But that’s the extent of the “show” in “That Physics Show.” Maiullo pretends that his his geeky explosions and frenetic motion are meant to demonstrate several of the laws of physics, but he moves between the displays so quickly that he doesn’t end up connecting any dots.

We will have to see how successful this is. I'm more interested in finding out if people actually LEARNED anything from seeing this show. It is hard to produce an entertainment but also trying to teach people something new.


Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Did Physicists Failed To Explain Clearly To The Public About The LIGO Discovery?

OK, this came out of left-field, because I didn't read the Nature Physics editorial.

This is a Physics Today comment on an editorial that appeared in Nature Physics regarding the recent LIGO discovery of gravitational wave. In it, the Nature Physics editors seem to indicate that physicists have failed to clearly convey to the public what gravitational wave is and how the discovery was made.

In “a triumph of ingenuity and perseverance,” exulted the thumbnail summary atop a 1 March Nature Physics editorial, physicists “have finally detected gravitational waves.” The summary continued: “And now we need to explain them to the general public.” The editors charged that the public’s response was largely summed up in this Daily Mash satire headline: “Scientists completely fail to explain ‘gravitational waves.’” The editorial declared that physicists “should learn to explain the physics of these spectacular events to non-physicists.”

But that is where things get rather interesting and puzzling at the same time. You see, as the Physics Today comment indicated, there has been NO evidence that physicists have failed to clearly convey this discovery to the public. What Nature Physics editors have used as their "evidence", which is from the Daily Mash, is actually a satirical piece, very much like The Onion here in the US. The Physics Today comment brought up its own evidence on how this discovery has been covered and explained many different times and many different ways by a number of prominent physicists appearing in several media forms.

So, not only did Nature Physics editorial not able cite a single, valid evidence to back their claim, but there are clearly evidence to the contrary! For a "science" journal, this is a serious lapse, because the very basic method of having evidence to support one's claim is fundamental to having a valid idea or conclusion.

I'd like to hear Nature Physics response to this charge.