This Morning: Quest University's First Ever Graduation

In an hour and a half, I will head up the mountain to Quest University's first ever graduation. As you can imagine, we've had a number of events this week to celebrate the completion of our first class of students' studies. Of course, I've only been here for a year; those who've been here four years or more are (visibly) much more affected by the fact that Quest has managed to get to this state.

Yesterday afternoon, the five students whose capstone projects received distinction all gave presentations in front of an audience of a few hundred, including students, faculty, parents, and maybe even a few members of the community. They all did an impressive job, and showed tremendous poise. They also performed very well when receiving questions from the audience, showing a comfort both on stage and with the material they'd studied. The projects varied quite a bit, from a study of human perception from primarily a literary and philosophical point of view, to a study of just war theory and military response to terrorism, to a psychology experiment testing whether environmentalism corresponded to a "world view" under a particular definition, to a survey of wildfire managers about trying to reintroduce what used to be the natural wildfire cycle in BC, to a combined biological and social study of the factors influencing the spread of a particularly nasty virus in Bolivia. Everybody I talked to was quite impressed with what the students did, and I think that the first through third year students were a little scared by the standard that had been set.... (We must remember, however, that these were what we identified as the top five projects out of the 45 or 50 in the graduating class!)

It's pretty exciting to be a part of this experimental University. I'm just happy to be teaching again, but I'm particularly happy to be teaching at a place that really cares about teaching. Quest's mission is focused entirely around teaching. What's more, the students here by and large are great. At Vanderbilt, at least in my large introductory classes, I wouldn't see the whole class except on the day of an exam. Here, if one student is missing one day, I'm surprised, and will often e-mail afterwards to see what's up. Everybody comes to every class, pretty much; that's unheard of at most any other University. (I will say that in my upper division physics electives at Vanderbilt, generally almost everybody was there every day, but certainly not by any means in the introductory classes.)

After today, Quest will for the first time have alumni. I hope it has many more, and I hope that I'm able to stay around for a few decades and participate in this experiment.

Some other proposed bills for Tennessee

You may have heard that Tennessee-- where I used to live-- had a "don't say gay" bill passed by the Senate Committee for Education, and will today be voting on it. This bill says human sexuality is a complex issue that is "best discussed at home", and as such "Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality."

Now, while you might think, "well, hell, they shouldn't be teaching kids about sex in elementary and middle school!" Perhaps, although middle school is when puberty starts to hit and kids need to learn that stuff. But, also, this means that you can't talk about families with two fathers or two mothers, even though such families exist.

Anyway, as long as Tennessee is going down this road, I don't see why they should stop here. I propose the following additional bills for the Tennessee state legislature to consider:

• Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any religion other than Christianity.
• Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any gender other than male.
• Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any skin coloring other than white.
• Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss any music other than Country-Western.
• Notwithstanding any other laws to the contrary, no public education shall discuss anything that might run the risk of raising our kids out of an ignorant fog completely and totally unaware of the reality of the modern world and how that reality might actually not completely undermine the basis of human existence.

Vote for me in the "American Gods" audiobook contest!

Bookperk is holding a contest/open audition for a small speaking role in an upcoming audiobook of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. (That book, by the way, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can recommend it as quite a good read.) Fancying myself something of an amateur actor (most recently in Second Life), and a regular podcaster on "365 Days of Astronomy", I figured I should audition for this.

The deal is that they're going to listen to the top 20 vote-getters, and decide based on the audition recordings. So, please, vote for me, and tell all your friends to vote for me! If I can get into the top 20, then it will just depend on how my recording stacks up compared to the others. If not... well, then it doesn't matter. Follow this link to vote for me.

Teaching Quantum Mechanics to "Liberal Arts" Students

Before I even get started, I have to get defensive about the "scare quotes" around "Liberal Arts" in the title. The word "Liberal Arts" students is used to mean a lot of different things. The context I'm using it in here could very easily be interpreted as the context that I most dislike, hence the scare quotes. Often, when science types talk about "liberal arts" students, there is a subtext of "people who can't handle math and science"... that is, somebody who, at least as far as the study of science goes, is a lesser. That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about "liberal arts" students as in the vast majority of students who are at higher end colleges and universities in North America. Students who aren't getting a technical degree, whose studies aren't "training", but who are studying a broad range of topics with the goal of becoming broadly educated. Yes, even many/most physics majors are "liberal arts" students, because they do things other than just pure physics. Even some engineering majors are this!

At Quest University, students in their first two years take (for the most part) classes that are part of a "Foundation Program". There are 16 of these classes, five of which are science courses (which I think is pretty impressive, if you compare the ratio of science that shows up at most places). One of these is "Energy & Matter". This course has never been extremely well-defined, and indeed each time it's been taught it's been a different course, but at its core is the course in the Foundation that introduces students to physical science at the fundamental level. (Another meta-course, "Earth, Oceans, and Space", is about the "larger systems" applications of physical science.) Thus, it's been taught as standard introductory chemistry course, among various other ways. The last time I taught it, I tried to go for my own ideas as to what the most important things to get out of a course with that title would be. The result was mostly physics, with some chemistry mixed in.

More recently, some of us have been trying to make it so that students will have some idea what this course will be when they sign up for a given iteration of it. As such, we've taken to subtitling the course. A colleague of mine will be teaching it entirely as a lab course. Another (if he ends up full-time at Quest) will teach it focusing around understanding the energy needs and uses of a realistic city. One constraint we always have is that there is a huge range of abilities in this class. Some people have a strong background in physics, some people can barely do algebra (like all too many college students). In order to not bore the stronger students without blowing away the students with weaker backgrounds, one tactic is to teach something that you know that none of them will have had in high school. To that end, I've created the course "Energy & Matter: Our Quantum World", which tries to really get into the meat of quantum mechanics, but at the level approachable by a student who has had no previous physics nor any calculus.

Although I still need to tune it up, I think it worked. The thing about this class is that I wanted it to go beyond the descriptive level that you do often see in non-majors general physics courses. I wanted students to struggle quantitatively with the notion of probabilistic reality, with calculating amplitudes and probabilities. The result was that this time around, I spent much of the course focused on electron spin and thought-experiments based off of the Stern-Gerlach Experiment. Towards the end, we got to talking about quantized energy levels in general, and the Hydrogen atom in particular. We also talked about fermions and bosons, and the notion of a "Fermi gas" (including the electrons in a conductor). I did give them the Schrödinger Equation, but only in its most abstract form:

Since I wasn't using calculus, I wasn't able to give them the full differential form for the kinetic energy part of the Hamiltonian. Then again, the notion of coping with mathematical abstractions was a major theme of the course. Some of the material I covered is stuff that physics students may not see until a junior year quantum mechanics class: Dirac notation, propagating amplitudes, Dirac spinors, matrix representation of angular momentum operators. This did mean I had to teach a wee bit of matrix multiplication to the students in the class, but it was all quite approachable.

Although there are definitely things I will tune up next time around— I'd like to figure out a way to actually talk about waves so that the term "wave function" can be more than jargon, if I can figure out how to make it fit without making the class overfull— I believe that overall the effort was successful. It was quite a marathon for me, as I was effectively writing the textbook as I taught the class. (I would joke that I would write the reading assignment in Google Docs, and the students would watch as a typed it. It wasn't quite that bad; for one, I used LaTeX, and for two, all but two or three days I had the next day's reading assignment posted before the beginning of the current day's class....) There were a few students who felt quite lost, but frankly, that was as a result of a particularly weak grounding in algebra, and they would have had trouble in my previous iteration of Energy & Matter. Many students, however, seemed to get it, and really seemed to grasp what was going on with these probabilistic systems. A few students also commented on how cool they thought it was. My favorite quote was from a student at the end of her presentation about the Quantum Zeno effect: "Quantum mechanics is something that's hard for us to conceptualize, but it's also very very awesome."

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• This is Rob Knop's blog about physics, astronomy, science & society, general geekery, and anything else he is inspired to rant about. Rob Knop is a member of the faculty of Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia. However, everything he says here he is solely responsible for, and nothing should be construed to be the opinion of any current, former, or future employer of Rob Knop. For more information, read all about this blog.