Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CAP Medal Excellence Teaching to David Harrison

Dr. David Harrison, a Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the University of Toronto, was named this year's recipient of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Medal for Excellence in Teaching.  On June 12, 2012 he was presented with the medal at the CAP Congress being held at the University of Calgary. At the same meeting he gave an invited address entitled "My 'Aha!' Moment".

The citation for the medal from a press release issued by the CAP reads in part "Dr. David Harrison, University of Toronto, for his dedication to transforming the undergraduate physics teaching culture, especially in his design and implementation of the new Physics Practicals in Toronto, for his relentless pursuit of improved teaching using new, evidence-based teaching methodologies, for his leadership role in the design of innovative and rigorous TA training and for his long service to the physics teaching community through his computational tools, online notes and Flash demonstrations."

David Harrison has taught at University of Toronto for many years, and was instrumental in the redesign of the first year physics experience (the University of Toronto Physics Practicals).  He is also well known nationally and beyond for computer assisted instruction, web based physics documents, and for various research evidence supported active learning techniques.

He is a major contributor to the University of Toronto Physics Virtual Bookshelf, a rich array of publicly available articles on physics, the history of physics, demonstrations, and physics education research. Readers of this site will be interested in a document he posted in 2010 on an introduction to physics education research.

At the UPSCALE (Undergraduate Physics Students' Computing and Learning Environment) site you can find links to his Flash animations, the virtual bookshelf and materials on the practicals. For an overview of the Physics Practicals go directly to this link.  An image of students in the learning space is provided here courtesy of the University of Toronto.

Dr. Harrison won the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Award for Outstanding Contributions to University Teaching in 1976, and he was been selected six times from 1991 to 2008 for the University of Toronto Dean's Excellence Award.

In his concise, entertaining and inspirational presentation at the CAP Congress on June 12 Dr. Harrison considered the reasons why most physicists still use traditional teaching methods even though a majority are at least somewhat familiar with the physics education research literature favouring interactive methods.  While there may be practical implementation roadblocks in some cases, his thesis is that most physicists learn in ways not typical of most students in physics classes.  The modes of learning that work for us, do not work well for most students. He urged us to follow what educational literature and evidence shows, and use active learning techniques.

He did mention that there anecdotal, and some statistical, evidence that more interactive techniques of learning physics while demonstrably more effective for student learning sometimes lead to lower student ratings of the quality of instruction.  This does not seem to be universally the case however; for example the University of Calgary provided statistics in a workshop on June 13 that showed improvements in student ratings when interactive labtorials were introduced.

In an informal conversation at the CAP Congress I asked Dr. Harrison what was his most important contribution over his long and distinguished career.  He cited the development of the Physics Practicals without a doubt, noting the engaged, productive, and rich learning environment.

The Medal for Excellence in Teaching is awarded annually. Last year's winner was Dr. Joanne O'Meara of the University of Guelph.  Please consider submitting nominations to CAP for the 2013 medal.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

PEEP (Teaching Ethics in Physics)

The PEEP (Physics and Ethics Education Project) project provides a well thought out set of resources for teaching about ethical issues in physics.  It is perhaps surprising how little attention is typically spent in high school and university physics courses on ethical issues of physics related topics.  Physics expertise is critical to a full understanding of many of the issues such as climate change and energy issues that we face as a society. These resources can provide a starting point for physicists who want to increase attention on ethical issues in their physics class.

While the PEEP resources are primarily aimed at the high school level, many of the resources are also well suited for introductory physics.  Topics include radiation, climate change, weapons, space, energy and transportation (following image from the PEEP overviews the areas).  For each of these areas you can click on the topic, and then see a list of the specific issues. 

To give a flavour of some of the topics considered at PEEP let's consider the topic of the potential safety, or lack thereof, of cellular phones.  It starts with some background on how cell phones work, and what is ionizing radiation (and its effects), mentioning that while there may be small thermal effects from cell phone frequencies, it is not ionizing radiation.  Then it provides samples of media coverage of the issue.  It asks what you would do if designing an experiment to check out the safety of cell phones.  One feature I like is it ends with a number of people giving statements about the issue.

There is strong coverage of space physics related issues, including whether the cost of space research can be justified, what is orbital debris and what should we be doing about it, and issues related to searchers for extraterrestrial life. There is coverage of a number of diagnostic medical technologies, including X-ray, PET, NMR and ultrasound.  I would have liked to see a little more development on these topics.

The treatment on climate change will surely engage, starting with a UN quote saying that already 300,000 people are dying annually from climate change related issues.  It does a good job of setting the stage for this topic by identifying the key questions.  For example, on the topic of how good is the evidence there is actual data from mud and ice cores, satellite data and glacier retreat patterns.

If you click on People on the PEEP site you get a number of case studies of physicists who dealt with ethical issues related to their physics research.  The scientists include such well known physicists as Galileo, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. There is also coverage of less well known current scientists such as robotics developer Kevin Warwick who implanted microchips in his own body.

The PEEP resources are developed by a team of about a dozen experts centred at the University of Bristol.  As well as being a teacher resource, this is a science education research project to study the effectiveness of web based interactive resources.  The resources are freely available for download and while the development comes from Europe they will have universal appeal.  Teachers can download specific information on how to effectively use the resources. There is a biology oriented companion website, BEEP with similar resources.  It would be wonderful for a consortium of Canadian physicists to develop a similar set of resources with a Canadian focus, with specific attention to global change within a Canadian context, the medical isotope situation, CANDU, and other issues.  Coupled with the UBC Physics for the 21st Century this would give us a very relevant and powerful way to teach physics in a manner that students would find engaging and relevant.  If interested, or if you already know of such resources, why not add a comment?