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.