Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dr. Adam Sarty 3M STLHE Winner

Dr. Adam Sarty of Saint Marys University was one of the 10 recipients of a prestigious 3M STLHE (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) teaching fellowship.  This was awarded at the STLHE annual conference held at the University of Saskatchewan June 15-18.

The 3M STLHE citation for Adam Sarty in part reads "He is a model of teaching excellence and educational leadership....Few faculty, in any institution, have had such a tremendous impact in so short a period of time....His students express it this way: 'Humourous! Enthusiastic! Knowledgeable! Amazing! Best teacher ever!'....Over time, and in many ways, Adam Sarty has shown that he is an exceptional communicator, a gifted teacher and an excellent role model."

One of Canada's most accomplished and energetic university physics teachers, Adam is a leader in a number of aspect of physics education.  He is well known for the effective use of clickers in interactive, peer instruction settings in large introductory classes.  He has been a proponent of these techniques locally, regionally and nationally, and has spoken at many Atlantic universities after he won the Atlantic Association of Universities Educational Leadership Award in 2008.

He is one of the most energetic proponents of physics outreach, and each year does demonstrations at countless schools and public settings.  In fact, he even has been known to do physics demonstration shows along the street in his neighbourhood.  Saint Marys have a web page which describes the Adam Sarty physics show, and gives instructions on how to apply to have the show at your school.

His reach goes well beyond Nova Scotia or even Atlantic Canada, however.  He played a key role in the development of the Saint Marys video physics resource that draws a huge audience from around the world, Adam personally appearing in many of these. If you are not familiar with this wonderful resource, check out the video demonstration website.

Adam was the 2008 winner of the Canadian Association of Physicists Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the citation reads in part "...for inspiring his students to love learning physics, successfully implementing innovative teaching technologies and sharing the beauty of the discipline, through his dedication to physics education."

More details on Adam Sarty, his accomplishments and the 3M STLHE award are available in the university press release. Congratulations to Adam on this most deserved honour.

Image from Saint Marys University.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Jobs in Physics Education

I recently came across the PERjobs blog that is a remarkably active listing of physics education jobs. In the first five months of 2011 there were almost 150 job postings.

Each position is assigned multiple labels, and one can get listings of all of the jobs in a particular category -e.g. all the physics jobs, or all tenure track or visiting professor. The site includes both education and science department jobs, and occasionally lists intern or summer positions for students.

One of the keywords used is Canada, so you can readily isolate Canadian jobs. At the time of this post there were 7 Canadian jobs listed, three in education departments and the rest in physics.

Whether you are interested in administrative, contract, policy, service or interdisciplinary jobs, you will find an associated category. For example one of the interdisciplinary jobs listed is Google Fellow, a program where K-12 math or science teachers can apply to work at Google for a year developing curriculum materials.

As far as I can see there is not a charge for employers listing on the service. Information can be sent to PERJobs@gmail.com. I don't know who is behind this, but it is a great resource for anyone looking for a position.

ps  As I was preparing this I came across a site with Canadian physics jobs Wow Jobs.   It seems to have a fairly comprehensive listing of current academic physics jobs open in Canada.

While most are probably already aware of the following well known job listings, I would also point out the Physics Today job listing service,  the Bright Recruits service from Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society career list, and the Canadian Association of Physicists job service.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

UBC Physics for 21st Century

In this first post from the Division of Physics Education (DPE) sessions at the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Annual Congress at Memorial University in Newfoundland I want to cover a paper delivered this afternoon by Andrzej Kotlicki of the University of British Columbia. The paper was entitled "Physics teaching for the 21st century" and the basic premise was that we need to make physics problems and activities more grounded in the real world.

It was argued that the way we have taught physics, using highly idealized and unrealistic overly abstract problems, may be well suited to the tiny minority who will go on to become professional physicists, but is not the sort of education needed for a scientifically literate public. This philosophy is elegantly summarized by the UBC team in the following way: "The great problems of the 20th century were solved by a few incredibly smart people. The great problems of the 21st century will have to be solved by billions of moderately smart people. This is where teachers come in..."

With financial assistance from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the UBC TLEF, the UBC research group has developed a rich set of teaching resources that they are making freely available to the physics teaching community via a well structured website http://c21.phas.UBC.ca

They provide videos, articles, real-life homework problems, experiments and activities that can be done at home, Powerpoint slides, questions for tests and exams, and dats sheets. The latter is one of my favourites. As teachers trying to make realistic problems it is often hard to find reliable information such as the drag coefficient of a typical car, the rolling resistance of a bike wheel, the average amount of greenhouse gas emitted by burning a liter of gasoline or the average albedo of the Earth. As well as giving the actual values, they indicate the approximate uncertainty and an internet source for the information.

As of today there are 65 articles divided into three categories: tools and techniques, energy and environment, and biology and medicine. You can also do a general search, or links for particular keywords. The anticipated level is stated for each, with most being high school or introductory university. They are produced by a team of fourteen faculty, teachers, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students. Work continues this summer so more resources will be added.

To give you a flavor for the contents, some of the more popular titles are radioactive milk, how regenerative auto braking works, tar sands, thermal radiation from the body, electric shock hazards, and why you can't immediately turn a nuclear reactor off. The techniques section include an introduction to spreadsheets for numerical models,

The resources are covered by a creative commons policy so essentially you are allowed to use them for noncommercial applications as long as attribution is given. The team would appreciate knowing of institutions that make use of the materials. They also welcome contributions of similar resources from other physics educators.

This is a superb resource to help us teach the sort of problems that are realistic and meaningful to our students. It will also be valuable for those involved in science outreach. But don't take our word for it - visit their website and see for yourself.

Friday, June 10, 2011

UBC Study Supports Interactive Learning

A study recently published in Science (click here to go directly to the full article) concludes that learning in an introductory university physics class can be significantly improved through the use of interactive methods compared to traditional lecture methodology.

The university press release provides an overview of the key features of conclusions of the study. The study, which took place at the University of British Columbia, matched two classes in second term of introductory physics, during an electromagnetism unit.  Both classes had experienced traditional lectures for the first portion of the year, and standardized tests showed that they were well matched in terms of attitudes to physics and physics achievement.

For one week (3 hr of instruction time) one class (each had about 270 students) was taught traditionally by a highly rated senior professor.  The other class were taught by a trained but not experienced young scholar (the lead author of the paper) assisted by a graduate student teaching assistant.   The press release describes the experimental group this way "During the experimental week, Deslauriers and Schelew gave no formal lecturing but guided students through a series of activities that had previously been shown to enhance learning, such as paired and small-group discussions and active learning tasks, which included the use of remote-control “clickers” to provide feedback for in-class questions. Pre-class reading assignments and quizzes were also given to ensure students were prepared to discuss course material upon arrival in class."
Results on the same test for experimental and control group (from the cited paper).

The results were truly impressive, particularly considering the short term nature of the experiment.  The figure shows the mark distribution (on the same test) for the experimental and the traditional groups.   The average test score was 74% for the experimental group versus 41% for the control group.  There was also a significant (20%) improvement in class attendance and engagement.

While the results are not surprising to those familiar with the PER literature, the relatively straightforward approach and dramatic differences are sure to help convince skeptics.  Interactive methods really do lead to better learning in physics classrooms.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Physics in Canada Report by Antimirova et al. (2009)

Written some time ago now (early 2009), much of the content is still current in this report on physics education research in Canada by Dr. Tetyana Antimirova, Pedro Goldman, Nathaniel Lasry, marina Milner-Bolotin and Robert Thompson.   Published in Physics in Canada (2009, v65, (1), 19-21) it provides a snapshot of physics education and physics education research in Canada.  The article points out that while there were, at that time, more than a hundred PER groups worldwide, and some dozens in the U.S.A. it argues that there is in essence only one in Canada.  At that time, if one counted faculty members working essentially totally in PER that could be justified, although in fairness there are groups of a few people, mainly working in PER along with other areas, at a number of Canadian institutions.  Nonetheless, I do agree with the critical point that not enough attention is yet paid to PER in Canada.

The article does point out strong growth in the Canadian physics education community, citing the number of sessions at the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) annual congresses by the Division of Physics Education (DPE), prominent keynotes on physics education, and other signs of interest in the topic.  The key reason for under representation of PER in Canada is the lack of a sustained funding model.  While SSHRC funding can cover educational research in all fields, and NSERC Promoscience funding can be used for science outreach development to youth (but not the associated research), Canada badly needs a long term, high level funding mechanism.  Ideally this would be tri-council (NSERC, SSHRC and CIHR) funding for research in education in all of the sciences.  As the article notes, more than 120 Canadian physicists signed a statement seeking an appropriate Canadian funding mechanism.

Image from T. Antimirova, Ryerson University.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

PER Central

The website http://www.compadre.org/per/ provides a central point for many Physics Education Research resources. The site is self-described in the following way. "PER-Central contains information about and links to a wide range of materials for the use of people conducting research on the teaching and learning of physics. Some of these materials are also useful to teachers and administrators interested in applying the findings of PER. Links to articles describing physics education research along with links to instructional materials based on that research are the heart of the site. News and other items of interest are also available."  The site has links to easily go directly to community news, conferences, theses, published articles, curricular materials, etc.  There is a PERWiki section with a community composed set of resources, currently divided into sections on PER history, journals, and research tools.  One of the features I like best on the site is the search box on the top right.  You can enter a topic, such as collaborative learning, and then get a listing of all resources on that topic.  A link allows you to easily sort them by date or several other criteria.  Registration is free, and gives one the opportunity to contribute to the resources.