Friday, December 31, 2021

End of the Year Reflection

It has been more than 20 months since we went completely remote due to the pandemic. I still remember the chaos and panic when we started all this in March 2020. I think all of us thought that this would be short and will last only a few months. Boy were we wrong.

I had never wanted to be an online instructor, and I do not see how an effective physics instruction can be done via such a means, even when I was aware that many schools have online general physics courses. I was skeptical on how well a student can learn from such a format.

But when force to teach remotely, I had to train myself into being an online instructor. I already knew back then that I cannot simply transpose all my usual face-to-face (f2f) way of teaching and bring it online. It didn't work for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester, and I was highly unsatisfied with my own performance. I knew I had to do something, and that meant forcing myself to be trained as a certified, online instructor. I want to learn what has been know to work and effective, and what doesn't.

At the institution that I am at, the requirement to be certified as an online instructor involves passing two selected online courses offered by Quality Matters. Then, to complete the certification, an in-house courses on using our learning management system (LMS). I will admit that they were all extremely useful and gave me a different mindset on online learning. I knew that online courses is a different beast than f2f classes, but there's a lot more "psychological" consideration with online learning, both synchronous and asynchronous. It is why trying to apply f2f format to remote learning will not be very effective.

I became a certified online instructor at the end of Summer 2020. Since then I've applied many of the techniques, philosophy, and methodology of remote learning to the courses that I had taught in the subsequent semesters. I went from being uncomfortable and unfamiliar with remote teaching to actually liking it! It got my creative juices flowing as I continue to think of various ways to increase students' engagement in the course.

And that word, "engagement", became the central theme that I've learned as an remote instructor. While I used to think of "class participation" as something I want the students to be active in in f2f classes, it is now a more general concept of student engagement that is more important. Class participation is only one type of student engagement, and I learned of how I could get students to be engaged in a subject matter under remote learning modality. I realized that I spent a lot of time thinking of various things and activities that students can do or participate in, either synchronously or asynchronously, to keep that focused on the material or as means to get them to understand the material. Oh sure, it took a lot of time and effort in the beginning to come up with these things, but from the evaluation feedback that I received, they seem to be quite effective.

Technology-wise, I find that it is no longer a major issue to interact with students in answering their questions or showing them how to solve problems. I will either post my hand-written work on the course's LMS page, or if it is a synchronous session, I used my iPad and an app called AirSketch to mirror my iPad onto my computer and voila! I have a "pen and paper" capability to show my students, similar to being at a whiteboard.

For me, one of the most useful suite of online resources is the Google Office apps. I make use of Jamboard, Google Slides, and Google Documents for students to work either on their own or in a group during breakout sessions. I've even assigned graded tasks for them to solve using Google Slides where I post a problem and they have to work together to show their solution. Often, these are accompanied by a task they have to complete using PhET web applications and other simulations.

One of the most difficult part of going remote is the labs. We were not prepared for this, so unlike schools that already have established online presences, we do not have kits to give out to students so that they can continue doing physics experiments at home. We end up relying on either simulations, virtual experiments, or other means. Along this path, I discovered Pivot Interactives, which in my opinion, is one of the best alternatives to doing labs online. This is because this is not a simulation. It is an actual experiment, but done by someone else. A students is left with the tools to measure various parameters. So the result is almost like what the student would get if he/she were to perform the experiment itself, meaning that the data have all the uncertainties and errors in a typical actual measurement. I have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

During the pandemic, I upgraded many of my equipment. I replaced my old MacBook Air with the new M1 MacBook Air (so much faster!), and added a few other accessories to enhance my synchronous session, including a ring light. Here's a look at my current setup (and yes, I do have two different notebook computers that I use frequently).

I think that as far as the quality of my video during Zoom, we are good! I had students who told me that I look like one of those TV news readers. I hope they were referring to my video quality rather than how droll and dry my presentation was. 😁

While this is all well and dandy, my skepticism of online/remote learning has not gone away. This is especially true in terms of assessment. I still believe that online cheating is too easy and too rampant. I had to work extra hard in reducing (not eliminating) the chances of cheating during my exams. Forget about using questions given by the textbook publishers because those can easily be found online, especially on Chegg. All of my exams are questions that I had to formulate on my own. And it never fail to amaze me how a student who scored 20/20 on a homework will crash badly in an exam that contained questions similar to that found on that homework. And yes, I have found questions that I had formulated in an exam given just a few weeks before now appearing online verbatim, even including the sketch that I made. It means that I can't even recycle my own questions in future exams.

I am aware that there are several proctoring method that can be done with remote learning, but many of them sound rather creepy and Big-Brother-ie to me. I do not want those things installed on my computer, so why should I force my students to have them. The way I reduced the degree of cheating in my exams is to inform the students in advance that all the exams will have limited time, will open only within a certain period of time, and all the questions will be out of my head. With this, I hoped that they will realize that even if they copied from other sources to do the homework, they will at least try to understand what was done in the solution rather than doing a blind copy. I've only had limited success so far with this.

As 2021 closes, it looks like I will have to start appearing on campus. The labs will now be done f2f while the rest of the instruction will still be done remotely. I also have the option of having exams done in class rather than remotely, so maybe that will eliminate issues of cheating with the exam. What is different now than in March 2020 is that I no longer have that apprehension of teaching remotely. While I will continue with my own personal and professional development as an instructor, I think that I am now well-equipped to handle remote instructions. During these past 20 months, I've acquired both the skills and the technology to deliver lessons online effectively, even if I'd rather things go back to the way they were (don't we all?).

Happy New Year, everyone!


Monday, December 20, 2021

You Might Get $50 Had You Read This Professor's Syllabus

The amusing story going around right now is the report on CNN about a professor hiding an information about how a student could get $50 if he/she read his course's syllabus and found the instruction on where to find the money. At the end of the semester, when the professor went back to the money's location, the $50 was still there!

The hint read: "Thus (free to the first who claims; locker one hundred forty-seven; combination fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-five), students may be ineligible to make up classes and ..."
This would have led students to a locker that contained a $50 bill, free to the first student to claim it.
But at the end of the semester, when he went to check the locker, the bill was still there.
Frankly, I'm not surprised (is anyone surprised by this?). I've always assumed that students do not read the syllabus given to them at the beginning of the semester. This is why (i) I go over the syllabus on the first day of class where I point out the important parts of it, and (ii) my first quiz of the semester requires that they find the answer from the syllabus itself (i.e. "What date is Exam 2?").

I put out a very detailed syllabus. Major parts of it are dictated and required by the school. But other  parts include important requirement on what they students must do. I also include a detailed calendar of when topics or chapters of the text will be covered, what are due each week, and when the exams are scheduled. Basically the entire semester has been laid out at the beginning. I find this to be extremely useful after we went remote, because it became very clear on what tasks and assignments the students have to complete each week and when they are due. They did not have to contact me for most of the questions they had about the course.

However, it isn't unusual for me to still get, in the middle of the semester, students asking when the next exam will be held, what is the weight given to homework, etc.. etc., all information that the students can find in the syllabus. I often tell them that these are all information that they could find in the syllabus, and only then do I give them the answers.

Now, to be fair to the students, because of all the stuff we have to include in the syllabus, it has gotten rather long. With the course scheduled and the course learning outcome and student learning outcome all included, my syllabus for this Fall 2021 is 13 pages long. I can certainly understand if a student just does not have the patience to read every minute detail of the document, which is why I spend that first class of the semester going over the important highlights that they must know or be aware of. I can certainly see why this professor got his $50 back if the information is buried somewhere in the many pages of information. But then again, he could also have buried it in between some very pertinent piece of information.

If you are a student, the moral of the story here is that, no matter how tedious and unimportant it seems, just spend some time readying the syllabus. It gives you an important overview of the course, and maybe even what the instructor expects out of you. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to find some lunch money!


Sunday, December 12, 2021

Impact of community masking on COVID-19

I find legislation that prevents mask mandates or requirements to be extremely irresponsible and abhorrent. These are made without regards to public safety and in contradiction to overwhelming scientific evidence that showed that wearing proper mask is one of the most effective means to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

I have presented several posts on this blog on the various scientific studies in support of this. Now comes another one that leave no doubt on the effectiveness of masking in reducing the virus transmission. This was very recently published in Science (a very prestigious and difficult journal to publish in, if you don't know this already), and is done across several villages and on a population of more than 300,000 adults in Bangladesh.

We designed our trial to encourage universal mask-wearing at the community level, rather than mask-wearing among only those with symptoms. We encouraged even healthy individuals to wear masks since a substantial share of COVID-19 transmission stems from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, and masks may protect healthy wearers by reducing the inhalation of aerosols or droplets.

When you read this paper, keep this in mind. It is one thing to show scientifically of how masks reduces the spread of aerosols from our mouth and nose. This has been shown clearly and without any doubt base on the many publications and studies that I have highlighted so far. But it is another to show that it does have an impact STATISTICALLY when applied to large population. This latter part is more difficult because it involves a lot of variables. It is why this latest study is very important because it is one of the larger sampling of human population involved in masking (or lack thereof) to reduce the spread of the virus.

The sign of a valid idea is that the more you study it, the more convincing it becomes. Pseudosciences lack this kind of progression, where they continue to struggle getting to First base to prove that such-and-such even exists. In the case of the effectiveness of wearing proper mask to reduce COVID-19 transmission, the more we study it, the more the evidence we gather to point this to be valid, that wearing mask has been shown unequivocally to reduce the risk of the virus transmission.


Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Teaching Physics Using "Anchor Equations"


I've only started reading this paper, so I haven't fully digest everything that was written, but I thought I should pass this on and maybe we can all read this together.

The author is presenting a way to teach intro physics lessons using a set of what are called anchor equations

An important step in learning to use math in science is learning to see symbolic equations not just as calculational tools, but as ways of expressing fundamental relationships among physical quantities, of coding conceptual information, and of organizing physics knowledge structures. In this paper, I propose “anchor equations” as a construct to support teaching and learning in introductory physics. I define anchor equation, provide examples, and suggest ways anchor equations can be used in instruction to support the development of students’ mathematical sense-making.

I don't know if I'm doing something similar, but I don't have what I call as "master equations", in which these are a minimal set of equations as starting points, and where other equations are derived from. Newton's 2nd law (F = ma) is certainly one of my master equations. However, I don't think my line of thought about this is as well-developed as the author's, who actually used this as a central hub in understanding the physics relevant concept.

Definitely something I need to read more carefully.


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Getting Students To Turn On Their Video Camera During Zoom

While many schools are back to in-person classes, there are still many courses being offered online due to the pandemic. In fact, a number of schools had to revert to online classes after severe COVID outbreak on campus. So online lessons are not going away anytime soon for traditional in-person schools.

At the start of the Fall 2021 semester, during many of the meetings I attended with faculty members from my department and other departments, one of the most common "complaints" that I hear was how to get the students to turn on their camera. The school has made it abundantly clear that we cannot force the students to do that, and that turning on their cameras was something voluntary.

Still, many faculty members were having a hard time teaching to "blank boxes" on their screen. They complaint was that they find it frustratingly lonely when they look at their screen and see no faces and no one there at the other end. They also said that they couldn't see any body language to gauge the students' reaction, as if looking at a live Zoom window could tell you the accurate body language of a person.

To be clear, many of the faculty members who moaned about this were from the language/humanities/etc. department. So eventually, I had to say something about this.

What the issue here really isn't about turning on someone's camera or being able to look at a person on the screen. Rather, it is the issue of STUDENTS ENGAGEMENT on the subject matter. When we teach in class, we can judge how much the student is engage in what we are teaching, and there are many face-to-face interactions that engages the student into understanding the material.

We can't do that in an online lesson, be it synchronous or asynchronous. Treating an online lesson the same way as you would a f2f class will suck, as I've said many times. As an instructor, we have to rethink EVERYTHING when we teach things online, because the whole emotional/psychology of things are different.

I told my faculty colleagues from other departments that, if anything, *I* have a greater need to see my students in terms of being relevant to the material being taught, and not just for my psychological needs. I told them that when I teach the topic of magnetic field, such as when a charge particle moves in a magnetic field, we find the direction of the force acting on the charge particle using the cross product depicted by the so-called "right-hand rule". When I taught this in class, I can see how the students were lining up their right-hand and how they "curl" their hand to finally look at their thumbs to show the direction of the force.

So here, there is a direct and academic need to be able to see what the students are doing, and not simply just for my benefit. Thus, if anyone here has a greater claim to want to see the students during a lesson, I argue that it would be me. Yet, I make no such requirement to the students. I told them that if they want me to verify that they are doing the right-hand rule correctly, they should consider turning on their cameras, and that was it. I don't bemoan the situation that I couldn't see my students, etc. and it somehow made it feel "lonely" or as if I'm talking to nobody. It isn't about me. It is about the students!

I think that a lot of people do not realize the extra and unique challenges of teaching STEM subjects remotely/online, and this includes non-science administrators and faculty members. STEM faculty members should make their voices heard more often, and be involved in the relevant committees so that we don't get left out in course design, etc. Otherwise, a lot of things that they think will work, won't for the courses that we teach.


Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Is 1/3 smaller than 1/4?

I'm sorry if this is old new, but I just found out about this recently.

I read a rather amusing account on why A&W 1/3 pounder lost out to McDonald's quarter pounder, even though they were both at the same price.

Confused why A&W's burgers weren't able to compete even though the burgers were priced the same as their competitors, Taubuman brought in a market research firm. 

The firm eventually conducted a focus group to discover the truth: participants were concerned about the price of the burger. "Why should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat?" they asked. 

It turns out the majority of participants incorrectly believed one-third of a pound was actually smaller than a quarter of a pound. 

I hate to say it, but this is no longer surprising to me. I look back on my take on the public's understanding and perception of science, technology, and math, and the dismal state seems to have persisted. Nothing has changed. In fact, when I said this back in 2010 .... 

As scientists, we cannot forget this, because it explains the fickleness in the support that we get. That overwhelming support that is there one day can easily go away the next day, and not because of some scientific evidence, but possibly because someone else has better bells and whistles.

... I just never expected it to be illustrated so glaringly during the past few years. Many in the public do not have the ability evaluate the validity of a claim or evidence, and science can easily lose its support because someone else has a more attractive message, even without any valid evidence.

What are the odds that this is the root cause of our debacle today?


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Why You Need To Wash Your Hands For 20 Seconds

Finally, the reason why we should wash our hands for a minimum of 20 seconds has a physics explanation.

The research work was published in the Physics of Fluids journal, which so far has been quite an active journal in publishing papers related to the physics of the coronovirus transmission, making them available widely to the public.


Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Quantum Mechanics and the Double-Slit Experiment

The double-slit experiment continues to be of interest with respect to quantum mechanics, even after so many years. I've mentioned about this many times, with this one being the most relevant here to this particular post. And note that I made that blog entry back in 2013!

This time, Don Lincoln of Fermilab has released a video on the topic of the double-slit experiment and how it is relevant to QM.

BTW, has he lost weight? If he has, I hope it is on purpose and not due to an illness.

In any case, watch the video and check out the link that I gave. This issue doesn't look like it will be resolved anytime soon unless some new experiment comes up.


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Keeping Online Teaching Techniques For In-Person Classes

Fall semester 2021 is looming, and many schools are going back to in-person, face-to-face classes, at least here in the US. The pandemic that caused us to teach remotely has forced many of us to hone our skills as instructors and adapt them to the online environment. I mentioned earlier how I decided to enroll myself in an online program to get certified by my institution as a qualified online instructor. I had no intention of wanting to be an online instructor, but I wanted to take these courses because I needed to learn the important skills and methodology of being an online instructor because, whether I like it or not, and whether I want to or not, I was going to be delivering my lessons online. And I did, for the next 3 semesters (including summer).

The thing is, my training as an online instructor may actually have improved my overall skill as an instructor, even for an in-person setting. There are many important lessons that I learned from that training program, and I fully intend to use many of them when I go back to in-person teaching. What brought this article about was a discussion I had with a few of my colleagues on whether we will use any of what we learned from the online training courses when we go back on-site. All of us unanimously said yes.

So here, I want to outline a few of the things that I had used in my online/remote classes that I will continue to use in my in-person classes.

  1. Remote office hours. God yes! I no longer see the need to have specific office hours at a specific location. Oh, I am still going to publish one office hour on-site, but the other office hour will be via Zoom that students can drop in remotely. Not only that, I'm going to make it very flexible for students to make an appointment to see me via Zoom at almost any time of the day if I'm available. Students are no longer restricted to seeing me only when they are on campus.
  2. More extensive use of the Learning Management System (LMS). Before the shutdown, I have been using the LMS to record grades, to post announcements and the course syllabus, to upload my lecture notes, and for the students to submit their lab documents, etc. However, now, I will make even more use of the LMS after what I have learned from online courses. I will continue to use the discussion feature, although not as extensively as I did for the online classes. I find that students who are either shy or do not actively participate in person, often make more use of the discussion feature in their participation with the class. This discussion feature could be an extension of the labs, where students get to give their opinion on the experience of a particular experiment, or what they expected or didn't expect.
  3. Related to the LMS, I will keep the design and layout of the LMS page based on what I've learned from online courses. This was the biggest cosmetic and design change that I have adopted. Having weekly module that contains EVERYTHING that a student needs to do and finish that week makes so much more sense now. The surveys that I had done seem to indicate that this is highly successful and that students were able to navigate the LMS and find everything that they need easily.
  4. Before the pandemic shutdown, I was running a flipped classroom, so I was already making use of online lessons, videos, etc. I was also using clickers for the polls and a form of peer-instruction during my lesson. I adopted this for my online lessons. So this won't change when I go back to in-person classes. However, it think that I want to add a lot more video lessons that students can use as additional resources for when they are out of class. It just means that even when they are not in class, they will be able to review the lessons of that week via other means and other sources. 
  5. One of the most important aspect of online courses is student engagements. It is crucial because this is one of the most difficult thing to accomplish in online classes, and yet, it has been shown to be an effective means to convey the lesson and get a student interested in it. This is not that big of a deal for in-person classes because, well, the students are there and you can engage them with via many things in class. However, I want to formalize this engagement even when it is easier to do during in-person classes. Before the pandemic, I was already running what I would call "Studio Physics" classes, where the students have frequent discussion when other students, and even perform the demonstration of certain physics phenomenon themselves as part of the lesson. I want to increase this even more. While I had used web applications such as the ones from PhET, I want to use more of these so that they become on-going "projects" for them to investigate outside of class hours. During the past year and a half, I found a lot more websites having many different physics online simulations, "labs", and other applications that had used in my online courses. I found many of them that would be very useful to assign to students even in an in-person class. Again, a lot of this could be part of their discussion task where they discuss and report what they learned or discovered while using these web apps.
  6. Clearer, more extensive and detailed feedback. In an online course, student and teacher often do not interact either live, or often, and feedback often does not come fast and quick, unlike in-person interaction. So feedback on something, especially on an assigned and graded task, must be as clear and complete as possible that first time. This includes the tone of the feedback where we were told be mindful of how the feedback might be perceived by the student. While this may not be as crucial in an in-person environment, I still intend to make full use of the feedback feature on the LMS to give a detailed assessment on a student's work. I think that having it in writing makes it more concrete and gives the student a clear and more permanent evaluation, especially if it involves something done online such as the discussion forum.

I'm glad that I got the training that I needed to be an online instructor, even when I have very little desire to be an online instructor. The skills and technique that I learned were valuable, and in some ways, I hope it made me a better teacher both during this remote-learning phases, and when I go back to in-person instruction. We shall see if this is the reality for in-person instruction soon enough.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

10 Scientfic Evidence In Support Of Airborne Transmission of SAR-CoV-2 Virus

The ridiculous battle during the pandemic on wearing masks, social distancing, and other restrictions reveals the lack of understanding among many in the general public on how science works, on what is considered as valid scientific evidence, and how our knowledge progresses as more and more evidence and data accumulates. I continue to be amazed at the reasons why some people still resist wearing proper face masks. I can understand if they find it uncomfortable (who does?) and that it is inconvenient (who thinks otherwise?). However, if the reason given is that masks doesn't do anything or isn't effective in reducing the chances of the virus being spread, then I want evidence to back that up.

This is where the public lack the understanding of (i) the nature of valid, scientific evidence, versus simply something you read on Facebook, news websites, or even from talking heads on TV, (ii) where to find such evidence or what should you pay more serious attention to versus those other sources that I mentioned. Here, I want to contrast the type of information that is contained in a scientific paper versus what you find in news article or many public online websites.

(1) When you read something in the news on a typical mass media source, you are told the content, but very seldom are you given proper, exact citation. At best, the type of citation that would be mentioned would be something to the effect that this was published in such-and-such journal or book, etc. Worse still, often times the sources are not even cited, so many of these things are stated as if they are facts, and facts that many of us are unable to verify on our own, if we wish to.

In contrast, scientific publications require exact citation. If you say that this result is in agreement or support by recent discoveries, you must give bibliographical references to those sources, i.e. name of author/s, name of journal where it was published, what page/volume number, date it was published, etc. These details are crucial in someone else verifying the sources of the claim. This is what is often missing in many general public articles, and unfortunately, this is often the source of Fake News, because exact evidence and sources to back the claims are either bogus, unreported, or unrevealed, which prevented anyone from double-checking their validity.

(2) News report and online articles often ignore contradicting evidence. When someone claims that he/she got sick after receiving a vaccine shot, why doesn't he/she consider why a lot of other people didn't get sick? Of if receiving a vaccine shot makes one "magnetic", how come other people aren't? This can also be applied to a lot of "news" programs that reports on certain occurrences that was due to something, but ignore other instances where those occurrences do not happen.

In scientific papers, this is a no-no. In fact, as a referee for several physics journals, I often will check if the authors are ignoring contradicting experimental evidence, or other papers that may be in the opposite to what the authors observed or claiming. These contradictions MUST BE ADDRESSED, i.e. they are not swept under the carpet or just ignored. And they must be addressed in terms of scientific reason, not simply by claiming that the contradicting results were made by Democrats, Republicans, Muslims, Jews, liberals, conservatives, etc. Look at how many so-called discussions or reports attached labels as a means to dismiss something. Such flimsy tactics do not wash in scientific papers.

(3) General public articles and news lacks details and clarity. I read a news article last year where a family decided to go to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL, and when they got home, they tested positive for COVID-19 and immediately blamed their presence at the theme park for being infected. The news article didn't mentioned any other details about their trip. It did not say if they took a plane, didn't not say how long they stayed, whether they only went to the Disney theme park or did they also went elsewhere, and if they drove there, did they stop anywhere along the way, etc. There was a huge amount of information here that was missing even for a casual reader to be able to clearly analyze the validity of what the family was claiming.

If this claim is to be analyzed scientifically, then an epidemiologist would need to do really detailed tracing of every activity that the family did. Casual and speculative connection between A and B are usually insufficient to draw up valid conclusions.

In a scientific publication, every detailed of a calculation, every detail of the experiment, and every detail of how the analysis was done, must be clearly revealed. Often times, the experimental setup and equipment may had already been published elsewhere, and those will be cited as a reference. Similarly with the calculation and analysis. These details allow for an independent investigator to not only double-check what was done, but also to duplicate the experiment if necessary to see if the results are reproducible, which is a pillar of all scientific experiments (and why the Fleishmann and Pons cold fusion claim failed).

(4) Scientific papers are permanently recorded. They are not like Twitter feed that can be deleted, or news article that may be difficult to find anymore, or Facebook postings that have disappeared. This allows for future citations by other papers, and allows for continuing evaluations, advancements, refinements, rebuttals, contradictions, etc. There is a clear paper trail of who said what and when, which means that it is hard to deny or lie about something, or claim that someone didn't say that or didn't do that.

The whole point in all of this is not to force you to read scientific papers. It is ridiculous to insist that because many of them are not easy to read and are written for other experts. Rather, it is to distinguish on the nature of the evidence, and that if something is backed by proper scientific sources, then the evidence has a greater degree of validity and support than something that someone just rattled off on a TV talk show or on some Facebook post. It is unfortunate that many people, especially politicians, give equal credence to someone testifying that their bodies became magnetized without bothering to invite an expert to debunk such silliness. It seems that whole topics in physics, biology, and physiology were ignored to give air to this craziness.

It is the inability to evaluate the validity of the so-called evidence is one of the fundamental reasons why we are in the state that we are in today.

"But ZapperZ, the topic is about the scientific evidence for airborne transmission of the COVID virus.  Where is it?", you asked.

Good question. I guess this is the long, circuital route to point you to this Lancet article that contains the evidence, and the references to the scientific papers, that support the claim. Compare the types of research that were done, the analysis that were performed, and how the conclusions were drawn, and compare that with the types of "evidence" presented in the popular media and TV news programs.

Have fun reading!


Thursday, July 01, 2021

Using Science To Teach Students In The Art Of Falsifying An Idea

The climate of fake news and anti-science during the last few years have given me the impetus to be more conscious and deliberate in alerting my students on how we analyze something, on making rational judgement based on evidence, and how we come to such-and-such conclusions. To me, the issue of believing in fake news and accepting something based on flaky evidence does deeper than what it seems. It boils down to the inability to systematically and analytically evaluate the validity of something. This inability is really a serious issue and could be the root cause of what we are seeing today.

This type of skill is exactly what we use and practice all the time in science. So when I get a group of students, especially if they are non-science students who are taking the course only to fulfill their science credits, then I can't waste the opportunity to instill in them this invaluable technique and methodology that are often used in science.

Using the period where the pandemic forced us to teach remotely, I made extensive use (and still do) of the discussion forum. This is one form of student engagements that many online training courses have deemed to be essential in making sure that students feel connected and engaged with not only the subject matter, but also with other students. This medium gave me the opportunity to get the students to think things through and to present logical and rational arguments.

One of the topic that I presented was to require them to critically address a belief about the cause of the Earth's four seasons. We were going over the reason why we (at about latitude 41 degrees North) experience seasons. I presented a topic whereby someone claims that since the Earth orbits the Sun in a slight elliptical orbit, the seasons are caused by the varying distances between the Earth and the Sun, meaning that when the Sun is closest to the Earth, we have summer, and when the Sun is farthest from the Earth, we have winter.

The task was for the students to come up with typical and common everyday observations and/or knowledge to show why this idea is wrong. In other words, find a very direct and convincing way to falsify the argument.

I thought this was a straight-forward assignment and discussion topic. Unfortunately, I was quite surprised that almost 3/4 of the students didn't fulfill the briefs. What they did instead was to give the explanation for the cause of the seasons, which is the tilt of the Earth's spin as it goes around the Sun. While this is the correct explanation, it does not falsify the original argument. I tried to tell the students that what they did was to present to this person an alternative explanation on why the seasons happen, but they haven't shown evidence why the original premise was wrong! They have not falsified the first idea.

When we do that in an argument/discussion, the person who holds that idea can easily say "All you have done is showed another possible explanation. You haven't proven to me why my idea is wrong. So why should I change my mind?"

Providing an alternative explanation, even if it is the correct one, is distinctively different than falsifying an idea. In falsifying an idea, you do not need to actually have an alternative, correct explanation. In this case, you really don't need to know that the Earth's tilt is the cause of the seasons on Earth. All you need is to examine the original claim, and find evidence that contradicts that claim. In this case, what you can do is assume that it is true, that the seasons are caused by Earth's varying distances from the Sun. If that is true, then the entire Earth would have the same season at the same time of the year, because the entire Earth is at the same distance away from the Sun. Yet, it is common knowledge that Australia, New Zealand, South America and Antartica are in their deep winter freeze while we in the Northern Hemisphere are basking in our summer heat. This observation is clearly contradictory to the original claim, which means that this is a falsification of that idea. It carries no other "baggage", i.e. it doesn't promote an alternative explanation on the cause of Earth's seasons.

It found it challenging trying to convey this message to the students. They learned about the Earth's tilt and the cause of the seasons, and when they were given this topic, they immediately jumped on providing the explanation that they just learned (and understood) without thinking about how to actually address the topic of the discussion and knowing the difference between falsifying an argument versus providing an alternative explanation.

Sadly, the same situation happened again later in that semester when I brought another scenario for them to address: the claim that the phases of the moon are due to Earth's shadow of the light from the Sun. Once again, they were asked to falsify the claim, and once again, more than half of the students provided an alternative explanation on the cause of Moon phases rather than falsifying the idea.

In teaching science courses to non-science majors, I've grown more skeptical about the public's ability to analyze something. What I have observed regarding the "controversy" surrounding vaccines, the wearing of face masks, and even climate change, reinforced my skepticism about someone 's ability to either think things through, or even know what a valid evidence is. My post on the nurse who claimed that the COVID vaccine makes her becoming magnetized is one such example. Something that should have been easily checked and verified by a high-school physics student now somehow is gaining traction. That claim can be easily falsified (and have been), even by people without much scientific training and without knowing any alternative explanation on why certain objects might stick to one's body.

It requires skills to look at an idea, analyze it thoroughly, and rationally argue on its validity or its fault. It also requires skills to know what are valid evidence and what are not. Often times people confuse opinions and conclusions with facts/evidence. Talking heads on TV often spew out opinions that a lot of people mistaken for facts. In a science class, it is more important than ever that instructors make a deliberate effort to show the process of how a scientific idea becomes accepted, what kind of evidence would be considered to be scientific (why do we have to measure the forces at various extensions when just one is sufficient to find the value of the spring constant in Hooke's law experiment?), and how to challenge an idea and show that it may not be correct.

A science education is now more important than ever, not just for the scientific content, but also for the skills that come with it.


Friday, June 18, 2021

Bringing Current News Into A Physics Lesson

I chat often with my colleagues from the English and other departments. I often envy them because many of their assignments have the ability to incorporate the hot topics of the day. They often assign tasks such as essay writing that involves subject matter that are relevant for the current times, such as writing about Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, etc.

While I always want to do the same, it is less obvious and not so straight-forward in bringing the same thing into a physics lesson. I had managed to incorporate some over the years (direct observation of blackhole in an IR image while we were studying EM waves as an example). But to incorporate topic-of-the-day to match the topic of the lesson is not that easy.

But this time, I managed to do it, and it was a doozy. We were about to dive into the topic of magnetism and electromagnetic field when I stumbled upon a goldmine. It is the claim that the COVID vaccine can cause one to become magnetized!

Now, my class is still being done remotely, so I make extensive use of the discussion forum as one means of student engagement. When the subject of magnetism comes up, the topic of discussion that I created was for the student to read a couple of news reports on this claim being made. The task is not to either belittle or make fun the claim or the people who made them. Rather, it is to rationally examine the claim and use well-established scientific facts to analyze the validity of such a claim. The students had to do this based on what they have learned about magnetic field, the type of magnetism in a material, and what type of materials are attracted to a magnet.

They were encouraged to make their own at-home observation. Everyone had refrigerator magnets, and I asked them to try and stick various items to the magnet, especially the ones that had been used in the testimony reported in the news article. A student also had the bright idea to use a compass that she had and see if the compass needle changes direction if she brought it against her skin (she's fully vaccinated) or her parents' skin. She cleverly argued that if something has a strong enough magnetic field to attract a spoon, it should cause a noticeable deflection in the compass needed.

This ended up being a lively discussion topic in the discussion forum, with students posting pictures, videos, etc. either one something they found, or something they did. It forced them to sift through what they read in the news to find the details that they can analyze and compare with what they learned about magnetism. They studied the validity of the claim only from the scientific point of view without passing any judgement on politics or personal beliefs.

The whole thing went better than I expected. The students were engaged because this was a current and relevant topic, and they get to see first hand how something that they just learned was actually useful enough to be used to analyze a news item. They get to see that a physics topic is not just something esoteric with little direct practical use in everyday life.

Oh, I should also mention that this is an algebra-based General Physics course that is tailored to life-science/pre-med/biology/kinesiology major. Many of the students are quite familiar with the human body and biological functions, so their discussion included several possible explanations on why something would or would not stick to a human skin without any consideration about magnetism.

It is on days like these that I get great joy in being a teacher.


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Context Interactions & Physics Faculty’s Professional Development

This is a rather fascinating study of two different physics faculty members at two different schools. I haven't finished reading it carefully yet, but I thought I'd post the link here and let you read along with me.

Abstract: This paper investigates the interactions between context and professional development of physics instructors in a case study of two physics faculty. A phenomenological-case study approach was used to analyze two physics faculty at different institutions over a year and a half using three semi-structured interviews each. The data enabled the identification of relevant context elements; and the impact of these elements on physics faculty's professional development was explored by adapting Bell and Gilbert's framework for teacher development. The analysis shows that both case study subjects used their physics expertise and growing understanding of their context to develop their physics teaching. However, this process of development was enacted differently given the nature of their context, highlighting instructors' strengths in navigating their local context to improve their physics teaching. The results show the subtleties of how context has a salient, complex, and evolving role in moderating faculty's professional development. By taking a faculty-centric approach, this paper broadens the community's awareness of the ways physics instructors develop their physics teaching. This work contributes to a relatively new lens by which the physics community views, discusses, and supports the professional development of physics faculty. 

What the authors call "context" appears to be broadly defined as "... the different entities that influence their professional development .. " which could include the institution, the department, other faculty members, workshops and other faculty development efforts, etc. 

The study focused on two faculty members, and followed them via a series of interviews. In particular, they seem to focus on each faculty member's teaching practices and philosophy, and how they evolve and how they are able to execute their teaching ideas.

Like I said, I'm still in the middle of reading this, but I freely admit that I see bits and pieces of myself in here, especially in the struggle to implement some of the active-learning concepts into my classes, more so during the remote-learning phase due to the pandemic. 


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Muon g-2 Results Signify New Physics? Maybe Not.

The big news of the week that got all the media coverage is the result that came out of Fermilab's Muon g-2 experiment that confirmed an earlier result from Brookhaven more than a dozen years ago. Fermilab even announced it like.

However, as with any scientific discovery or announcement, one has to take a deep breath and let the process works itself out before we put our stamp of validity to it. This is because there is a theoretical calculation that has also been published along with this result that basically recalculates what the Standard Model predicts as the magnetic moment of a muon, and they found that the new calculation produces a result consistent with the experiment. In other words, there is no new physics if this calculation is verified, because the old Standard Model does, in fact, predicted this new result.

One of the major difficulties in physics is that in many situations, we do not have a simple equation that we can plug-and-chug to get numbers out. In fact, this is why predicting the weather is difficult, because the non-linear differential equations that need to be solved to get the number out can only be done numerically, i.e. it has to be done via some numerical algorithm.

This is made worse when there are a gazillion interactions involved in a system. So one ends up making simplifying models or adopt calculational techniques to allow us to get to some numerical answers. We benchmark the technique to known values and known systems to make sure that it gives accurate and sensible answers, but as we push the boundary even more, there is no guarantee that that calculational technique will work all the time.

The author of the theoretical paper used a calculational technique called lattice QCD. This is a known calculational model that has been described in simple terms in the link I provided above. It appears that using this method, the Standard Model does provide a value for the muon magnetic moment that is consistent with the experiment. If this is true, then it means that the old calculation of the magnetic moment was incorrect in the first place, and that there is discrepancy between what the Standard model predicts, and what the experiment measures.

While this is good news for the Standard Model and is another evidences of why it is an amazing theory, those who are looking for new physics beyond the Standard Model will obviously not be jumping for joy. But that isn't the issue here and not what I want to highlight. Rather, it is the constant reminder that in science, and especially in such exotic areas of physics, every discovery or new ideas must not be overblown or overhyped, because those require multiple verification over a period of time. It is not a situation for instant gratification. A lot of hard work is still to come because we have seen way too many times where something that was touted turned out to not be valid.

This announcement received a lot of media coverage. I just hope that this is a valid "new physics" and not just something that turned out to be what the old theory did predict.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Getting My COVID Vaccine This Week

Being under 65 years of age, and with no major health issues (knock on wood), I was not eligible to receive the COVID vaccine in my area during the first 2 waves of its distribution.

But suddenly, it was announced by our state that starting Monday (today), higher-education workers will be included in the expanded criteria to receive the next vaccine distribution. So, after scrambling to find an appointment, I will get my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine this coming Friday, and then the second one later in April. All I can say is : PHEW!

There is certainly a push by the school to get things back to almost normal, in the sense that many of the classes are starting to be offered in person or in a blended/hybrid modality. Certainly classes that have a significant laboratory component are the ones that will probably start to be offered in person. I definitely would prefer to have the vaccine before I have to come in to the campus, so getting the vaccine now is a major peace-of-mind aspect of this whole thing.

It is certainly looking more certain that I may have to ditch my Zoom pants on most days and have to start dressing up again when I teach my classes this Fall! 😀😁


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Tripple-Layer Mask Blocks Secondary Atomization of Cough Droplets

I had already posted several physics papers on the efficacy of masks, even single-layer ones, in reducing the airborne aerosol. Now comes another paper that deals with how cough droplets actually can break up into smaller-sized droplets that may pass through single and double-layered masks, especially when moving at such high speed from a cough.

It turns out that having a mask with 3 layers or more might be the most effective here (I wonder at how many layers will we will of suffocation? :)) The new research is to be published in Science, and you can get the paper at the link to read to your heart's content.

A review of this paper can be found here. It is fascinating to read that expertise in the study of jet engines are being leveraged in studying the dynamics of this problem. But do you think people who don't believe in wearing masks to reduce the virus transmission will buy any of this? They believe in smartphones and jet engines, don't they?


Wednesday, March 03, 2021

English And The Language Of Physics

I love reading articles like this where the history of how things become the way they are now is revealed.

This Symmetry article tells the story of how English became the language of physics and why it became dominant in the publication of physics articles and journals. It has almost nothing to do with science, but everything to do with politics, social upheaval, and world events. If Germany didn't have the Nazi coming into power, we probably would be doing physics in German, or if the Soviet Union didn't close off the interactions of non-Soviet scientists, we'd be sharing ideas in Russian as well.


Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic On Physicists

We, physicists, are people too (shocking, I know!). The impact of isolation, stay-at-home and work-from-home orders, and the cancellation of experimental work, in-person conferences, workshops and others do have academic, emotional, and psychological impacts on this group of people

This Physics Today article looks at such an impact on the physic community, and how they are dealing with it.

How are YOU dealing with it? Are you back on campus, in your lab, or in your office? Or are you still working from home?


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Combining The Best Of Both Worlds

This is a fascinating and important advancement in the physics of light sources. It seems that it has been shown experimentally how one can get the short, intense light pulses that one gets from a FEL source, and combine it with the repetition that one gets from a synchrotron light source.

Now a Sino-German team has shown that a pattern of pulses can be generated in a synchrotron radiation source that combines the advantages of both systems. The synchrotron source delivers short, intense microbunches of electrons that produce radiation pulses having a laser-like character (as with FELs), but which can also follow each other closely in sequence (as with synchrotron light sources). 

Another review of this work, from Nature where it was published, can be found here.

While this is an important step, it really is a proof-of-principle experiment, and it requires a bit more experimental work to show that this can be viable.

Although this paper represents a crucial step towards generating high-power, small-bandwidth light pulses in a particle accelerator, steady-state microbunching has not yet been demonstrated. Deng et al. have shown that, after one turn in the synchrotron, the microbunched beam can produce coherent radiation. The next challenge is to prove that this scheme can achieve such a feat over many turns. This will be difficult to accomplish experimentally for at least three reasons.

But if this can be demonstrated, a lot of things that are done at a FEL can be performed even more at an "ordinary" synchrotron light source, a facility that is a lot more plentiful.

An important point that I want to point out here is that, these are all "tools" that allow us to study things. Without these tools, we have no ability to experimentally detect, see, or measure things. It enables us to do things that we could not do before. So the advancement in science, technology, medicine, etc, depend on not only having these tools, but also the continual improvement of these tools. Advancement in science requires all of these things to occur to able to explore more difficult and complex ideas and scenarios.

This advancement in accelerator-based light source has nothing to do with high-energy physics. In fact, if you look at the type of applications that are being mentioned, there's nothing about particle physics at all!

.....on an accelerator that could extend the capabilities of these machines even further, potentially yielding applications in a next-generation chip-etching technology called extreme-ultraviolet lithography and an advanced imaging method known as angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy.

So once again, this is my continuing attempt at trying to make people aware that "accelerators" do not automatically mean "particle collider" or "high energy physics". In fact, the majority of particle accelerators in this world are not involved in high energy physics experiments.


Monday, February 08, 2021

Wonders of Physics Competition

I mentioned about this more than 10 years ago in this thread. I went to UW-Madison and attended the early incarnation of this lecture-room demonstration that became a huge hit with the public. I also had Clint Sprott as an instructor in one of my courses.

Due to COVID-19, the Wonders of Physics show couldn't be held, and probably not in the near future either. To their credit, they are creating a contest instead, where you can submit a 2-minute video of an original demonstration of a physics concept.

So maybe one of you are creative enough to enter this contest. :)


Thursday, January 21, 2021

When Flipped Classroom Flopped?

I've mentioned about flipped classroom before, and that I use this format in a couple of my classes during the remote environment. This article goes the other way and pointed out when and why flipped classroom can flop and be rather ineffective.

I must say that the way this was described, it doesn't quite match what I am doing. While the students do have to watch videos and/or read something before they come to the first class of the week, they have pre-lecture quizzes that tests on whether they did watch the videos or read the material, and had a general understanding of the important ideas. These are graded and become part of their overall course grades. So there is incentive for them to go over the pre-lecture stuff.

Secondly, I don't just quickly dump them into breakout room right at the beginning. We meet twice a week and these are very long class sessions (3 hours) that often comprise of the subject matter and hands-on demos or labs (virtual labs). So I get to go over the important highlights of the subject, do a few examples, shoot off a few polls, give them a few online apps or simulations, and only then do I send them to breakout rooms to work on solving problems. In fact, in many instances, their breakout session is where they get to do their online virtual experiments and get to discuss what they are doing with one another.

I may have mentioned this before, but I did my own end-of-semester survey, and the overwhelming majority of my students liked the pre-lecture material and found them useful. So for me, the version of flipped classroom that I run appears to not be a flop.


Monday, January 11, 2021

Physics Labs At Home

I've made several posts on various virtual experiments that may be done in conjunction with the standard physics courses. While many of these are adequate, nothing beats an actual, physical experiment that requires actual observation and measurement in person.

This paper lists a few experiments that a student may be able to do at home using items that a student may find at home. Since almost everyone having smart phones, there are certainly many activities that can be done using such devices. I've asked my students to use their smartphones to install sky-viewing app to be able to track planets, stars, and other celestial bodies. We have also used various apps that made used of the accelerometer in the phone to measure acceleration. I also have an app called "Gauges" (iOS) that allows you to use your smartphone to be an altimeter, speedometer, barometer, accelerometer (of course), magnometer, and to measure sound level and luminance. I am in the middle of designing a few "in class" (and now, it is "at home") activities using these capabilities.

While virtual experiment is fine for the present unusual situation, I still believe that this is not the same as actually doing the measurement itself and physically performing the experiment. So I'm trying to find activities that a student may be able to do him/herself, or in collaboration with another student if he/she does not have all the necessary equipment. I want to incorporate this as part of the lesson rather than an actual "experiment", so that the student can see the phenomenon that they are studying or about to study.

Have you designed simple at-home physics experiments for your students?


Monday, January 04, 2021

General Physics Experiments Done Remotely

Oooh, yes please!

The problem that I have with online/remote physics courses is that we had to resort to a lot of "simulations" applications to do our "experiments". This is not what an experiment is supposed to be, because there has to be a components of errors and equipment issues that are involved in doing any physical measurement. So these simulations do not reflect reality.

The closest that I've seen so far is the one offered by Pivot Interactives, where you see a series of videos of actual experiments being done, and you get to measure what the person doing the experiment actually measure. It includes all the experimental uncertainties, quirkiness, etc. that the students have to also consider.

But here's another step further that gets the students even closer to being there and doing the actual experiment. I came across this article on UC Santa Barbara's effort to put their Sophomore-level quantum physics course online whereby the students can operate the equipment remotely and perform the actual experiments without being in the lab.

The automization of the quantum mechanical labs allows for students in the Physics 5L class to interact remotely with equipment using an online portal connected to the apparati set up in the lab, according to Fygenson. 

The online portal models the equipment setup, with buttons and knobs in the same order as where they would be on the actual equipment. Students can observe what happens in the lab using cameras aimed at the machines, Fygenson said. So far, the automated lab has been used in Summer 2020 and Fall 2020 and will be used again in Spring 2021.

That's brilliant! But that also involves a lot of money and effort to connect all of those equipment so that they can be operated remotely. Not many schools have that kind of resources and expertise.

I did a quick search and found an earlier report on this with an accompanying video. This gives you a better idea of how this is all done. It looks like from the video, the experiment being demonstrated as an example is the diffraction grating spectroscope looking at emission lines from various sources. This would be a very nice experiment to be done remotely.

Both articles indicated that they are sharing access with other schools, but did not indicate what one should do to get such access. I suppose I will have to contact one of the people listed at the end and see if I can have my students do at least that spectroscope experiment.

Anyone else have done something similar, or have used this?